SACRAMENTO (AP) — The severe drought in California is prompting state and federal wildlife officials to mount an unusual rescue operation involving millions of 6-month-old salmon that are at risk of dying in depleted rivers and streams.
The first phase of what is unexpected to be a 10-week effort got underway on Tuesday, when about 450,000 hatchlings were loaded on tanker trucks at a government hatchery in Northern California and released 160 miles south into the Sacramento River.
The young salmon, known as smolts, are still perfecting their swimming skills and normally rely on currents to help them get downstream and eventually out to sea. Officials are giving them a lift this year because the lack of rain has led to reduced flows, increased water temperatures and greater threats from predators. Those conditions have already claimed the lives of hundreds of smolts this winter in an overheated river near Watsonville.
“This is a Herculean effort to try to stave off a fishery disaster,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries branch chief Stafford Lehr told the Contra Costa Times. “We want to jump-start these young fish past the trouble spots and give them a better chance to survive.”
Every juvenile salmon born at five Central Valley hatcheries last fall — more than 30 million of them — will be similarly ferried south in coming weeks. Scientists also are keeping an eye on wild fish runs on several rivers closely to decide if government should intervene and start rearing them in hatcheries, National Marine Fisheries biologist Howard Brown said.
Releasing the salmon so far away from where they hatched could make it more difficult for the fish to find their way back in a few years to spawn. But fishery experts told The Sacramento Bee that the move, which is costing more than $800,000, is needed to prevent a major die-off and protect California’s $1.4 billion-a-year salmon fishing industry.
“This is a real unusual situation, and it requires us to take immediate and unusual action,” Brown said. “If we don’t take immediate action, we run the risk of perhaps losing an entire year-class of salmon.”