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Death on the Salmon Highway

The Sacramento River fall run chinook salmon population, now in a state of unprecedented collapse, encountered another blow when 75,000 juvenile salmon in a truck died en route to acclimation pens in San Pablo Bay

The fish were part of an experimental program to truck salmon smolts from the federal government’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento, to the pens to maximize salmon survival. The trucking program is designed  to get the fish past obstacles to their survival posed by water diversions, predators and the massive fish-killing state and federal water export pumps on the California Delta.

The salmon smolts perished on Monday, May 19, because of oxygen depletion in the tank of one of the two trucks that traveled to Carquinez Strait that day, according to Scott Hamelburg, hatchery manager “The fish deaths were caused by poor circulation of oxygen in the tank,” he said. “The pump did not appear to be sufficiently mixing the water.”

Of the total load of 100,000 fish in one truck, only 25,000 survived. The other truck delivered 70,000 fish successfully to the pens.

A total of 1.4 million smolts out of a total of 12.6 million slated for release will be released into the net pens in Carquinez Strait rather than on site into Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River. Fortunately, it appears that the problems with trucking have been corrected, as the rest of the fish put in trucks since then have reached the pens in good and healthy condition.

The fish are being released into pens operated by the Fishery Foundation of California, rather than directly into the bay, to acclimate them to the bay water. Rather than being stunned and disorented upon release into salt water, where they are subject to predation by birds and predatory fish, the salmon are able to adjust better to their new home.

“Our driver was upset, as was the entire crew here after the fish died on Monday,” emphasized Hamelburg. “We put a lot of time and effort into raising and transporting those fish and we hate seeing fish lost for any reason.”

To make sure that more fish didn’t die on following trips to the bay, the hatchery staff installed a different pump to provide more oxygen. In addition, they also reduced the truck’s load to 81,000 fish the following day and doubled the amount of ice from 300 to 600 pounds to make sure the fish arrived in healthy condition.

The change in procedures seemed to do the job. “The 150,000 fish arrived at the pens in fine shape without a hitch on Tuesday,” said Hamelburg. “There was no mortality to speak of.”

This is the first time since 1992 that salmon smolts from the hatchery have been trucked downriver rather than released into Battle Creek.

“We only did this for five years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s during the drought,” said Hamelburg. “The trucking of fish was very much justified because of the low, warm water conditions on the river.”

This year the trucking program was prodded by the collapse of Central Valley  fall chinook salmon, a disaster that has resulted in the closure of ocean salmon fisheries off Oregon and California and a zero bag limit for Sacramento River system salmon until a small stretch of river opens November 1 to allow fishing for late fall chinooks.

A number of organizations, including the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Allied Fishing Groups, Water4Fish, the Coastside Fishing Club, the Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and Representative Wally Herger are supporting Coleman Hatchery’s experimental salmon release program.

“This was an unfortunate incident,” said Dick Pool, owner of Pro Troll, who led the charge to get Coleman Hatchery to begin the experimental program. “I feel bad for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of all of the hard work they’ve done, I feel bad for the fish that died, and I feel bad for the fishermen that are counting heavily on the trucking program to bring back our salmon runs so we can fish for chinooks again in 2010.”

However, he was glad that the problems in trucking fish appear to have been resolved and that the program is proceeding forward.

Trevor Kennedy, executive of the Fishery Foundation of California, said, “It’s too bad that this happened, but this is the risk you take when you move truck fish 300 miles.”

DFG To Release All Salmon Smolts Into Acclimation Pens

The Department of Fish and Game is planning to put all of its 21 million salmon smolts into the acclimation pens in Carquinez Strait this spring. The Department has already trucked 11 million to the pens and plans to truck another 9 to 10 million fish to the pens by June 27.

That state has usually dumped roughly 14 million smolts directly in the bay, while towing another 9 million in net pens, according to Nels Johson, outdoor columnist for the Marin Independent Journal, who spurred an investigation by Assemblyman Jared Huffman into the DFG’s salmon smolt release practices.

The placement of all of the smolts into the pens this year is largely a result of the investigation and increasing political pressure by angling groups to increase salmon smolt survival.

“The survival rate of fish released into the pens increases significantly by anywhere from 200 to 500 percent,” said Trevor Kennedy. “This is the largest acclimation program we’ve ever handled – our previous largest amount of fish released into the pens was 14 million. Last year we released 10 million salmon smolts into the strait.”

Kennedy predicts that both the federal and state program will help to restore the salmon fishery. “This program has been a huge success – it should be phenomenal – you just do the math and it’s a pretty big boost to our fishery,” he stated.

One difference this year is that the DFG is switching back and forth between several release sites. By doing this, they are preventing predatory birds and fish, such as striped bass, from keying in on the release of salmon smolts from the pens.

“We will release at one site for a only few days, because if we don’t, the fish will get smart to the fact that we’re releasing fish at that location,” said Kennedy.

“The DFG has responded real well, with the drivers delivering fish at different times every day,” he added. “They realized how important this is considering that the fishery is in collapse.”

The Foundation this year is using a new system for acclimating the fish, a big aluminum pontoon boat on loan from the Bodega Bay Fish Marketing Association that was used for kelp and herring fishing. The boat can fit five nets, including six truckloads of salmon from the DFG or Coleman Hatchery. The boat is also a much more stable work platform than the previous operation

Nels Johnson was cautiously optimistic about the program.

“The current program is a mega leap ahead of last year’s,” said Johnson. “Although a predator problem still plagues the program, it’s better than last year when the state was essentially feeding striped bass with direct bay dumps of smolts.”

He quipped, “There are much cheaper ways to feed stripers that spending $3.2 million on releasing salmon smolts. The $3.2 million was not supposed to be used as a dinner bell for the stripers. It’s supposed to maximize salmon survival.”

Johnson believes that much more needs to be done – such as using more release sites at different times of the day, consideration of a night release program if crew safety concerns can be resolved, and enacting new regulations making it illegal to fish nearby when fingerlings are being released.

Like Johnson, I’m encouraged by the fact the federal government has embraced an experimental program to release smolts into the bay, while the DFG will be releasing smolts into the pens, rather than directly into the bay this year. However, anglers and fishing groups need to keep intense pressure on the DFG and NOAA Fisheries to make sure that they do everything to maximize salmon survival.

The pen acclimation program originated from the striped bass pen-rearing program, a program of the foundation conceived by United Anglers of California in 1991. The program successfully raised wild striped bass salvaged from the state and federal Delta pumps to a larger size that could evade birds and other predatory fish.

The program was an overwhelming success, as evidenced by the increase in the striped bass population to over 1.5 million by 1997-98. Unfortunately, NOAA Fisheries decided that the pen rearing program was ‘too successful” and refused to grant the foundation the needed “Section 10” permit under the Endangered Species Act because the stripers, event though they had successfully coexisted with winter run chinook salmon for over a hundred years, were supposedly ravaging the protected salmon.

Tom Hampson, who designed and constructed the original pens for the striper project, then contracted with the DFG to acclimate the salmon released from DFG. Unfortunately, the DFG apparently dropped the ball and didn’t release the salmon into the pens in 2005 and 2006 – years where poor ocean conditions for salmon prevailed and state and federal water exports from the California reached record levels.

The combination of record water exports, poor ocean conditions and the lack of the pen rearing program in 2005 and 2006, along with other freshwater factors such as water pollution, combined to produce the salmon collapse that has resulted in ocean and river closures to salmon fishing.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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