Most of the salmon caught in California come from hatcheries in the Sacramento Valley, yet it turns out we don't know much about these fish even though we breed them by hand.
A new study released Tuesday says the state needs to do a lot more to improve its salmon and steelhead hatcheries, and recommends difficult steps that could upset a lot of anglers. The bottom line, according to the study, is that despite the millions in public funds spent on hatcheries, the state knows relatively little about how hatchery fish influence wild salmon or what happens to them during their life cycle.
The $2 million study, released by state and federal wildlife agencies, concludes nearly two years of work by a panel of 11 fishery experts. Their recommendations are similar to changes long ago adopted in Oregon and Washington that have strengthened fish populations in those states.
Among other things, the study found that California lacks standard protocols to handle the 40 million salmon it produces each year at eight hatcheries, including Nimbus Hatchery on the American River.
Fishery managers, according to the study, also don't do enough field monitoring to fully understand the fate of these fish. For instance, they don't know something as basic as the geographic boundaries of some salmon runs.
"I see many, many challenges in front of us," said Mike Orcutt, fisheries department director for the Hoopa Valley Tribe on the Klamath River, which was also part of the study. "This hatchery review is a starting point."
The hatcheries are woven into the fabric of California's immense water infrastructure, and their charge is equally enormous. Usually built at the base of a dam, they receive a portion of the water diverted by the dam with a mandate to artificially breed approximately the same number of salmon that would have spawned naturally if the dam weren't there.
In short, hatcheries aim to strike a balance between the state's thirst for water and its hunger for salmon. But there's a cost: Through interbreeding over the decades, hatchery fish have weakened the wild salmon and steelhead that remain, making entire populations more vulnerable to environmental disruptions.
This was borne out in the recent crash of the Sacramento River fall-run chinook salmon population, the largest in the state, which underpins a fishery worth at least $60 million annually. A record-low population prompted regulators to close salmon fishing seasons in 2008 and 2009.
This year, the fall run is enjoying a resurgence. But fisheries experts say better management of hatcheries could help avoid or at least flatten these wild swings.
"When people see the (population) numbers go up and down, they want to know why, and we don't always have the answers," said Kevin Shaffer, fisheries program manager at the California Department of Fish and Game.
The study, Shaffer said, helps settle the debate about how hatcheries should be managed.
Among its most controversial provisions, the study recommends ending a long-standing practice in which Fish and Game hauls juvenile salmon by truck from its hatcheries to San Francisco Bay, where they are turned loose to migrate to the ocean. This has dramatically improved survival by isolating young salmon from pollution and predators in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
But it also prevents salmon from imprinting on the river where they were bred, causing them to "stray" into the wrong river when they return from the ocean to spawn, usually as 3-year-old adult fish. When this happens, they often breed with local fish in that river, diluting both runs.
Instead, the study says all juvenile hatchery salmon should be released into the river at the hatchery where they are bred. This will not be a popular recommendation, as the fishing industry has long supported the trucking operation, which ensures more fish in the ocean to catch.
"Until the Delta and some of the other major (habitat) problems are fixed, we're out of business if trucking is stopped," said Dick Pool, a board member of the Golden Gate Salmon Association and owner of Pro-Troll Fishing Products, a Bay Area tackle manufacturer.
Therein arises an elemental conflict: Wild salmon runs likely cannot be restored without some short-term impact on fishing.
"That is the yin and yang of the slow arc of salmon work in California," said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Game, which manages six of the eight hatcheries. "Our hatcheries are a means to an end, not an end in themselves."
Pool and other anglers acknowledge their livelihoods depend on hatcheries. And they agree hatchery practices need improving. But those changes will hurt the salmon harvest just as the industry is recovering from four years of curtailed or closed seasons, he said.
For these reasons, government officials will face significant pressure not to adopt the study's recommendations.
"We're going to be sure the recommendations are implemented so that we do no harm," said Ren Lohoefener, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates two of the eight hatcheries.
The recommendations are just that. They are not requirements. But Shaffer said the California Department of Fish and Game will likely begin adopting some of the recommendations as soon as this fall, first by creating committees at each hatchery. Because some proposals require more and better water flows at hatcheries, electric utilities and water users must be brought into the planning.
Shaffer said some measures will take longer because they require more money and manpower. One recommendation, for example, urges hatcheries to mark every salmon bred with a coded wire tag so its origin can be traced. Currently only 25 percent are tagged.
The study also proposes changing the steelhead breeding program at Nimbus Hatchery. Currently that program breeds adult steelhead that come from the Eel and Mad rivers on the North Coast. It recommends replacing them with an appropriate native species.
John Williams, an independent fishery biologist who specializes in hatchery effects, praised the study for proposing an end to the trucking program and calling for better hatchery management.
But he also said it "sidesteps critical issues" concerning genetic interaction of hatchery and wild salmon. More needs to be done to prevent wild salmon from spawning in hatcheries, and vice versa, he said.
"Do we want to put the emphasis on having fish to catch or having natural fish to exist?" Williams said. "I think we need to at least have a serious conversation about it."