U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Releases 750,000 Salmon Into Death Zone

Salmon released at hatchery in drought death zone unlikely to survive

San Francisco -  As the Brown administration declared a drought state of emergency in California, the Coleman national fish hatchery plans to release another 73,000 baby salmon next week to almost certain death in the drought-stricken Sacramento River.  The planned release follows releases of almost 750,000 baby salmon over the last five weeks ignoring warnings from salmon advocates the fish are unlikely to survive.   Federal officials overseeing the controversial releases admit conditions are very bad for salmon but insist on releasing the fish at the hatchery anyway.  

 On January 6th  the Golden Gate Salmon Association warned the agency that because of extreme drought conditions, release of the fish at the hatchery would likely kill many of the hatchery fish and wild baby salmon trapped in the upper Sacramento River.  GGSA asked that the fish be moved to safe waters for release.  The request was turned down by the Fish and Wildlife Service even though recent studies show salmon released from Coleman hatchery in similar low water conditions had very low survival. 

Loss of this year’s juvenile salmon will be acutely felt in 2016 when any fish that survive this year will come back as adults. The salmon industry stakeholders are very upset that the agency is putting these fish and the entire salmon industry at high risk.

The Sacramento River is now flowing at 3250 cubic feet per second, the lowest level allowed by law.  This makes it extremely shallow and clear, the opposite of conditions baby salmon need to migrate safely from river to sea while hiding from predators.  Studies during the last drought between 2007 and 2009 indicated that up to fifty percent of the fish released at Coleman hatchery were lost in the first fifty miles from the hatchery.  The State run Feather River and Mokelumne hatcheries confronting similar issues, release their fish downstream with greatly improved survival and adult returns.  Coleman continues to ignore these accomplishments.

Dick Pool, secretary of GGSA said, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is playing Russian roulette with our fish. Their steadfast refusal to change their release practices or even consider changes, threatens the livelihood of 23,000 fishermen and communities supported by the salmon industry on the California and Oregon Coasts.”

John McManus, executive director of GGSA said, “The Fish and Wildlife Service says they won’t move the fish to safe release sites because they fear the fish will fail to imprint and find their way home two years from now.  But there aren’t likely to be any fish two years from now under the hatchery’s current practices.”

Equally important to the loss of the late-fall fish is the impact the release from the hatchery will have on smaller wild rearing salmon.  The hatchery produced salmon can harm smaller wild fish.  This is why the Coleman hatchery is required to release their juvenile steelhead downstream, away from smaller wild fish. GGSA recommended that due to this year’s extreme conditions, the late fall salmon be moved and released as the steelhead are.  The agency refused to listen and would not even agree to tests of the GGSA proposal.  

The 2011 Biological assessment made for the Coleman hatchery warned about this issue.  GGSA suggested that the USFWS check with the National Marine Fishery Service about this but it appears they again refused.  

The Coleman hatchery is legally required to produce salmon to mitigate for loss of spawning habitat blocked by the Shasta Dam.  Although the hatchery itself is well run and is the largest hatchery in the Central Valley, its ratio of ocean surviving adults is the lowest of any hatchery in the system.  GGSA blames the problem on the failure of the Fish and Wildlife Service to address the downstream losses in the River and the Delta.  Very few smolts survive these death traps.

Roger Thomas, Chairman of GGSA said, “The runs of the late-fall fish have plummeted in the last few years.  Failure to achieve a turnaround could lead to a listing of this fish under the Endangered Species Act and another shut down of the salmon industry.  Coleman needs to do its part to avoid this circumstance but we see no evidence that it is willing to do so.”      

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and vice chairman of GGSA said, “We’ve got families up and down the coast as well as inland who rely on healthy salmon stocks, including salmon from Coleman hatchery, to make a living.  Drought hurts but we can help salmon avoid the worst damage by moving them to safe waters beyond the lethal drought zone for release.”

Changed release practices along with releases of upstream reservoir water to mimic natural runoff during the hatchery releases can repair much of the damage.  Modifying manmade predator hotspots in the river and Delta that deny salmon hiding places and give predators advantages can also make a significant contribution.  So too can reduced water diversions and improved Delta flows which help salmon and other wildlife.

In April the Coleman hatchery is expected to release 12 million fall-run juvenile salmon.  The fall-run provides the vast majority of salmon to sport and commercial fisheries.  If drought persists, the fall run will encounter similar hostile upriver conditions.  Like the late-fall run, survival would be greatly increased if they are moved downriver for release.  Failing to do so will lead to a repeat of what fishermen believe happened in 2013.  Then, as now, low flow drought conditions greatly amplified predator advantages by making the baby salmon easy targets. Like now, the USFWS was asked to modify its release. They refused and there was evidence of a slaughter via predation most of the way down the river.

GGSA is calling on our legislators and the public to join the call for a more rational approach that will preserve the salmon fishery in the face of an extreme drought.  The salmon fishery doesn’t have to suffer if responsible managers move salmon around the lethal drought zone to safe waters. 

Golden Gate Salmon Association (www.goldengatesalmonassociation.org) is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, businesses, restaurants, an Indian tribe, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GGSA’s mission is to protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat comprised of the Central Valley river’s that feed the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the communities that rely on salmon as a long-term, sustainable, commercial, recreational and cultural resource.

Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs again in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. This is a huge economic bloc made up of commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal communities, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, tribes, and the salmon fishing industry at large.