The following appears in the November issue of California Sportsman:
(Editor’s note: This interview occurred before the November 3 Presidential election)
By Chris Cocoles U.S. Fish and Wildlife director Aurelia Skipwith recently toured one of California’s most critical federal facilities, the Coleman National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery stop was part of a busy day during Skipwith’s visit to California.
“It’s been fantastic,” she says of her Golden State stopover, which also included meeting with land trust organizations “working hard to conserve beautiful landscapes that allow hunting and fishing.”
Skipwith is part of a presidential administration that has come under fire at a time when many conservationists and environmentalists are skeptical about the federal government’s concerns for such issues. She says that USFWS, President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt are committed to and focused on “providing outdoor recreation, which is a part of our American heritage … and we’re delivering.”
She also discussed wildfire management with multiple state and federal agencies in the wake of a devastating 2020 of statewide blazes.
Skipwith is the first Black director of the USFWS and one of a handful of women who have held the post first served by Ira Noel Gabrielson in 1940.
We chatted with her about the trailblazer she’s become, plus the role Coleman Hatchery can play at a time when California’s king salmon runs on the Sacramento River and its main tributaries have endured a devastating drought and currently a political tug-of-war over water allocation.
Chris Cocoles When you visit a facility like Coleman National Fish Hatchery or a refuge, what are you looking for? Aurelia Skipwith I really enjoy visiting a national fish hatchery, but each one is different, especially when it comes to fish production. Either in the way that it’s set up for mitigation purposes, or also knowing that the production of fish is going for either commercial industries or hoping to sustain populations for recreational fishing. In looking at the massive numbers that are produced here at Coleman National Fish Hatchery, I (was) really excited to see the behind- the-scenes operation for the hatchery to meet its goal of continuing to provide opportunities for the multi-million-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry here in California. When you think about 2020 and COVID-19 and the impact that it’s had, it shows the resilience of the Fish and Wildlife Service that regardless of whatever is going on, we’re still meeting our goal, still providing for industry, still providing for the American public.
CC How has the pandemic affected the Service? AS When COVID-19 came along, we had our lands open and available; that was really hopeful in this type of environment. In having our (national wildlife refuges) open, we saw an increase in visitation. And it’s given people a renewed sense of the great outdoors. And I always say that there’s no better place to social distance, and social distancing was happening at our refuges and hatcheries long before COVID-19 came along. Whenever this clears up, the goal is for people to not forget that they have this opportunity to reconnect with the outdoors. Remember that and still come back to see us whenever we do reach that new normal.
CC You have roots in the Midwest and Deep South and fell in love with fishing, as I did in California, where salmon are literally kings. Can you appreciate the passion this state has for salmon runs and preserving them?
AS Oh, most definitely, especially knowing that the Fish and Wildlife Service plays a role facilitating that. It shows that there’s something bigger here and that we’re one of those pieces. It also shows the relationship that we have between the angling communities. One of the greatest things that I love, besides seeing the passion and outdoor enthusiasts among our amazing staff here at the Fish and Wildlife Service, is that (anglers) are paying into conservation. When you look at what it takes to conserve, it takes resources – people on the ground doing the work. It’s the sales tax and excise tax that come o equipment. It’s the increase in boat sales. The anglers are the advocates of conservation and they’re putting their money into these industries that allow it to continue to be sustainable. That’s what I also enjoy seeing, how that passion is so deep with the outdoor enthusiasts.
CC Is it also important to emphasize how critical salmon are in California and throughout the West Coast? There seems to be a perception that this administration isn’t concerned about these native species.
AS It is something that’s definitely important to the Trump administration and Secretary Bernhardt. And here in California, salmon is king. So it’s making sure that we’re working in partnerships and making sure that the operation within the framework and the plans that we’ve put together make it sustainable for the different industries that rely on salmon.
And that is key. Think about what this administration has done for conservation, like in August when the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act. That is the greatest conservation legacy since President Theodore Roosevelt. Knowing that the investments that we make today are investments for the future, this (administration) is committed to ensuring that those investments in our environment and our wildlife and the waters happen. And that’s setting our framework and infrastructure for tomorrow.
CC How satisfying was the bipartisan passing of the Great American Outdoors Act considering how divisive the political arena has become?
AS Oh my goodness; yes. It’s one of those things where you’re like, “This can be so amazing when this happens.” When it had passed in the House and you could look forward to when it was going to be introduced to the Senate, we could start to make our plans. This was something that we knew would be historic when it happened. Just to know that it was bipartisan to get something like this passed, it shows that regardless of whatever side of the aisle that you’re on, at the end of the day this shows that there’s common ground when looking at our environment and wildlife and how we protect and invest for the future. It shows that this is something that is important to everyone. It was definitely an important day for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
CC You mentioned you did some wildfire assessment during your visit. What can federal agencies such as USFWS do to help states combat these devastating blazes like the ones California has endured during such a difficult time?
AS It has been. You look at the impact that that has had on communities, the local economy of these communities and peoples’ lives. Plus the destruction (the fires) have on wildlife because their habitat is no longer there. So it is a multi-faceted approach, where you need to bring in multiple agencies. Because we all have different areas that we focus on with a different mission. And so our mission of being a conservation organization focused on wildlife and their habitat, we do play a role in being able to help facilitate activities that happen, where we can bring our science to bear when it comes to where management by another agency needs to occur. And at the same time, we have deployed folks within the Fish and Wildlife Service to come out and help on these fires. So not only is it our science to help when it comes to management of the land, but it also – when new fires do happen – we activate our folks to come out and help. Because it’s not just California that’s seeing it. This is an issue that impacts all Americans.
CC And what’s notable about California is its size, dense population and the fact that there are so many endless natural resources and different ecosystems. What kind of a challenge is that for your agency? AS California, unlike the other states when it comes to fires, there’s no other place like it. When you look at the management of water, which is sometimes more valuable than air and gold, there are more stakeholders and users. How do you balance that? At the Fish and Wildlife Service, the decisions that we make are based upon science, the rule of law and common sense. And when we’re making those decisions we’re not making them in a vacuum. We have the interest of other stakeholders for us to make those considerations. We have our guardrails with science and with the law. But we have to come up with creative approaches to make sure that the specific issues to California – especially when you’re looking at water and how you manage the timber – it’s definitely a different ecosystem. And having that flexibility and being able to adapt becomes critically important.
CC What advice would you have for women and people of color for what you’ve achieved in your career? AS My mom, she’s definitely a huge role model for me. And she was supporting me in all the random activities that I was into. [Laughs.] God bless my mom. With that, it’s follow what you want to do. You’ll have those people who are your cheerleaders – those people who are there to support you. It’s not always going to be an easy road, but it’s always worth it. For the women, for minorities, for anyone, always value education, work hard and be good to Mother Nature. Because she’ll be good to you.
CC We’re also right on the verge of the 2020 election and not sure what’s next, but what would be your vision for the USFWS going forward? AS Two things: The first one is I want to leave the Service better than how I found it. My goal is to always make a difference wherever I go. And the legacy that I want to leave is for any little boy or little girl, when they’re (asked), “Who do you want to be or what do you want to be when you grow up?” And everyone says, “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to be a lawyer,” or “I want to be an astronaut.” I want them to say, “I want to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I want to be a biologist.” In order for us to ensure that our wildlife and our habitat are here for the next generation, we have to be the best advocates and let them know that we’re out here. CS
Editor’s note: Follow Aurelia Skipwith on Twitter (@USFWSDirector). For more on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery, check out fws.gov/coleman.
Sidebar: THE CHALLENGES AHEAD FOR GOLDEN STATE SALMON RUNS
We asked Coleman National Fish Hatchery facility manager Brett Galyean about the state of king salmon runs in California and how the federal hatchery is working to sustain to the fish populations. Here are his responses.
California Sportsman A lot of Chinook seemed to return to the Sacramento-Feather-Mokelumne drainages last fall with another solid run projected for this season after some lean runs. Is that promising for the near future, or in your experience is it too difficult to project when it comes to salmon?
Brett Galyean Last year over 33,000 fall- run Chinook salmon returned to Battle Creek, with the hatchery taking in 13,000 for spawning purposes and allowing the remaining 20,000 to spawn naturally in lower Battle Creek. This year it was too early to tell how the run will be, but the hatchery was very optimistic and expecting another good run.
Fishermen were catching hatchery fall-run Chinook salmon at the Barge Hole – the fishing spot where Battle Creek joins the Sacramento River – which was a great sign that salmon run is in full swing.
CS How important is it for federally run agencies like Coleman to be able to work in sync with state hatcheries run by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to help ensure salmon runs for years to come?
BG The states have a wealth of scientific knowledge and management expertise that help us in our efforts to recover species, and it is extremely important that we actively engage with them as we work toward our shared goals. Coleman National Fish Hatchery has a great working relationship with California Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries, often exchanging information during spawning operations, sharing new technologies and occasionally even personnel and equipment.
CS What do you think USFWS and Coleman can do going forward to improve and enhance California’s populations of salmon and steelhead? Because other species of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened or endangered, there are concerns about fall-run salmon also becoming in jeopardy down the line given what’s happened in other parts of the country to salmon runs.
BG We are always looking for new approaches to conservation and recovery, using the best scientific information available. For example, in recent years the Coleman National Fish Hatchery team has begun work with federal, state and local partners to reintroduce – “jump start” – winter Chinook to Battle Creek, expanding their range into an area that has undergone substantial restoration. The team has released approximately 200,000 juvenile winter Chinook into Battle Creek annually since 2018. The first adult returns from this program are expected this year and we are excited to learn the results (see report on page 29).
Coleman NFH has started releasing a small portion of the fall-run Chinook smolts in March, to take advantage of earlier release conditions. In addition, the hatchery is working with fishing interest groups in off-stations releases that could maximize outmigration survival and is also working with a conservation organization on a potential floodplain-rearing project. All of these efforts will hopefully lead to increased salmon returns to the upper Sacramento River in the near future. CS
Editor’s note: On Oct. 28, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a series of salmon habitat improvement federal projects for a total of $40 million, which would be put toward restoration of various areas along the Sacramento River drainage over a four-year period..
“Our water operations along the Sacramento River are closely intertwined with the health of Chinook salmon populations,” said Ernest Conant, Reclamation regional director. “We are committed to the restoration actions laid out in our current operating plan to help restore, maintain and improve rearing and spawning habitat.”