When scientists proposed this summer to relocate endangered chinook salmon in winter to their historic habitat above Shasta Dam, they expected some people to doubt the seemingly novel idea would work. But it wasn’t a new idea at all, and it had proven itself a long time ago.
“When talking about bringing salmon back to historic habitats above high-head dams, it’s not uncommon to hear claims that it’s too difficult,” said fisheries biologist Stacie Fejtek Smith. for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Administration. “And that’s fundamentally wrong. Traditional knowledge shows us that fish can be moved and that people have been doing it since time immemorial.
In urgent response to a third straight year of drought, NOAA Fisheries and its partners – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of Northern California – have offered to relocate the Chinook winter to the McCloud River, where the fish historically spawned until the Shasta Dam cut them off from their habitat in the 1940s. The Winnemem Wintu, also known as the Middle Water People of the McCloud River, have a centuries-old history of transporting salmon across barriers.
“Before dams like this existed, the Winnemem Wintu would bring these fish with them in baskets over barriers or waterfalls, so they would have this food source,” Smith said. “They’ve been doing fish introductions for many centuries and are the caregivers of those fish.”
Caregivers were even lighting fires along the river, to mimic the stars in an effort to guide fish upstream. Over the centuries, they have passed on valuable knowledge about fish introductions, the landscape in general, the mudslides in the McCloud River, and the benefits of salmon to the whole ecosystem.
In a sacred riverside ceremony on July 11, Chief Winnemem Wintu and spiritual leader Caleen Sisk led a group of songs, dances and prayers for the salmon roe that had been brought to the McCloud River since the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Livingston Stone National Hatchery.
“We ask that the river receive these eggs. We ask that the old ways continue and grow that way,” she said. “We put this song on so they have a fighting chance.”
Return and exchange
Matt Johnson, senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), explains the incubation system on the McCloud River where Chinook salmon eggs are held while they mature before being released back into the river. This system combines the components of a remote site incubator with a tray system from CDFW’s Mount Shasta Hatchery to ensure that river mud will not smother the eggs. | Picture details
On July 11 and again on August 8, biologists transported approximately 20,000 overwintering Chinook eggs from Livingston Stone National Hatchery to Ah-Di-Na Campground in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Since then, a rotating team of CDFW employees has been at the campsite 24 hours a day, monitoring the condition of the eggs every few hours.
There, on the banks of the McCloud River, the first 20,000 eggs were placed in the reservoir of a remote site incubator, which held the eggs on a screen in the circulating river water. When they hatched, the resulting fry – newborn salmon – fell through the screen onto a gravel section of the reservoir, where they remained for about a month before swimming through a pipe into the river.
Unfortunately, just four days after the eggs were placed in the incubator, melting water from a Mount Shasta glacier flooded the river with mud, which can smother the developing eggs. The on-site team continuously cleaned the sediment from the tank and removed any dead eggs to prevent the spread of fungus. But sediment, especially in the lower chamber, was a problem.
“A remote site incubator is a proven tool for incubating eggs, but when we had such high siltation in the water, it became apparent that it wasn’t the best tool for the job,” Matt said. Johnson, senior environmental scientist for CDFW. “We react quickly on a daily time step to changing river conditions. We were aware of the history of Mud Creek and its effect on water clarity in the lower McCloud River, but we were unprepared for the extent of siltation that would occur in the remote site incubator and the danger the eggs would be due to the high sediment load.
The agencies had planned in advance for a possible mudslide event and quickly adapted by setting up a system of incubation trays from CDFW’s Mount Shasta Fish hatchery, to be used with the components of the remote site incubator. Each incubation tray maintains a shallow pool of circulating river water, which can be periodically drained of sediment.
The new system has also made eggs and fry much easier to see and reach. Staff can now easily identify and remove dead eggs, and they can agitate the water around live eggs with air or a feather to remove sediment. Eggs can also be temporarily removed from a tray to clean it.
Once the fry have been transformed into fry in the tanks, they will be released into a quiet alcove in the river. The fry will then swim downstream approximately 20 miles to rotating screw traps set up by CDFW in consultation with the Winnemem Wintu. Large floating conical traps will collect fry, which will be loaded into coolers and taken to a disposal site in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam. From there, the salmon will continue their journey to the ocean.
“The fish trapped will give us information about the life history of these juveniles in the McCloud River, such as when they will enter Shasta Lake,” Johnson said. “This will inform the future operation of a more permanent juvenile salmon collection system, which is on a parallel track for implementation with the McCloud River salmon reintroduction project.”
State, federal, and tribal plans call for the restoration of wintering Chinook populations to historic cold-water habitats upstream of dams. This year’s transfer of salmon to the McCloud River will add valuable information to this long-term effort, but it was not intended for this purpose.
The McCloud River project is one of many actions the agencies quickly collaborated to plan for this spring to help stave off the species’ extinction in the face of continued drought and rising water temperatures.
“Winter chinook salmon are one of the nation’s most endangered salmon species and one of nine endangered species highlighted by NOAA nationwide,” Smith said. “This year we expected to see a very high mortality rate due to consecutive drought years, and these actions have come together to prevent the species from getting closer to extinction.”
Livingston Stone National Hatchery has significantly increased its winter production of Chinook salmon as part of this effort, which will help maintain genetic diversity in drought years. The hatchery typically harvests 180 adult salmon from the Sacramento River each year to raise approximately 250,000 juvenile fish. This year, the hatchery and inter-agency partners increased the collection limit and collected 463 fish, bringing potential production to 900,000 juveniles.
Federal and state biologists have also moved adult Sacramento River chinook salmon upstream of a dam and into the upper Battle Creek, where the water is cold enough for their offspring to survive. They also moved spring-run adult chinook salmon, which are listed as endangered, to cooler waters in Clear Creek.
“This is a situation where everyone is on deck,” Smith said. “This is an urgent emergency action, and it relied on strong collaborations and the will of our partners to make it happen.”
Part of the ecosystem
Throughout the planning and execution of this project, Winnemem Wintu members have shared valuable information gathered over centuries. NOAA Fisheries’ Zayleen Kalalo spoke in depth with tribal members to document their traditional ecological knowledge and history of fish relocation efforts.
However, the tribe’s connection to the land and its natural resources was perhaps most impactful to state and federal scientists.
“As conservationists, we are part of the ecosystem we care for,” said Taylor Lipscomb, hatchery manager at Livingston Stone. “We can become so focused on the scientific aspects of conservation that we can forget that we are part of the landscape while being its custodians. In the same way, the resources we protect are also part of us. Lipscomb is Salish and grew up on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana. There, he and his Native American community participated in ceremonies to honor and celebrate the life-giving aspects of the Flathead River and its life-giving contents, as well as other parts of the natural environment.
“Taking time and pausing to recognize the significance of these events, like what happened in Ah-Di-Na on July 11, has to be part of the equation,” he said.
Lipscomb’s federal and state peers also felt the significance of the day and were touched by its events.
“Getting a taste of the Winnemem Wintu culture was very powerful and moving,” Johnson said. “I feel honored to have been able to be part of this ceremony and to see how they carry on their traditions.”
As part of the July 11 ceremony, the Winnemem Wintu invited federal and state officials in attendance to receive a tribal blessing and share their thoughts. Several scientists have spoken fondly of the return of an endangered species to a habitat where it had not swum in decades.
“That’s why people get into conservation work,” Lipscomb said. “To see something like this come to fruition – bringing heads together, working hard and overcoming obstacles to bring about conservation change – is hugely rewarding.”