It’s that time of year again, when the workers of Northern California’s hatcheries prepare for the winter-run Chinook salmon to arrive at their facilities for the annual spawning. The operation is a crucial endeavor in protecting and growing salmon populations throughout NorCal tributaries.
Workers at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery recently began the spawning process for winter-run Chinook salmon at their facility just below the Shasta Dam. The Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery is the only hatchery in the world that raises listed Winter Chinook Salmon.
Since the Keswick Dam blocks access to facility for the salmon, officials have to transport them to the spawning facility upstream via truck. During the process, each fish is checked for relatedness to the fish they are spawned with to ensure no siblings are crossed with each other. Then the fish are spawned and the juvenile fish will eventually be released back into the river, with hopes they will continue the cycle by returning to spawn years later.
Not only are the Chinook salmon spawning at the hatchery, they are also spawning on the Sacramento River. Fish and Wildlife officials are currently surveying the waters below the hatchery for salmon that have died after spawning. For each fish found they identify the gender, length and if the fish was from a hatchery or born in the river. Each fish receives a tag (to prevent it from being recounted) and is returned to the river. This survey allows biologists to get an estimate of the population of spawning winter-run Chinook each year.
While California is home to many native salmon species, winter-run Chinook salmon face unique challenges during their life cycle.
These fish historically spawned in the cold, clear waters of the Upper Sacramento, McCloud and Pit Rivers as well as in Battle Creek. The construction of Shasta and Keswick Dams, combined with an extensive hydroelectric project on Battle Creek, blocked access to their native habitats and forced them to spawn in the unhospitable waters downstream of Keswick Dam.
North Fork of Battle Creek is historic habitat for winter-run Chinook salmon. Resource managers from the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Program, comprised of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company, have invested more than $100 million since 1999 to restore about 48 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.
Today, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon are listed as an endangered species under both federal and state law. NOAA Fisheries also considers winter-run Chinook salmon among eight marine species most at risk of extinction.
The single remaining population of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon has persisted in large part due to federal and state agency-managed seasonal cold water releases from Shasta Reservoir, to protect sensitive salmon eggs from the summer heat, and through the release of hatchery-produced juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon from a conservation program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. However, re-establishing self-sustaining populations in other locales is important for the recovery of these fish.