Officials address viability of salmon, steelhead

The species are dwindling in Northern California. Here’s a plan to bolster their populations.

At Tuesday’s workshop, NOAA officials talked about reintroducing salmon into stretches of the Sacramento and McCloud rivers above Shasta Dam, but they did not say what changes would be needed at the dam to allow the fish to travel downstream.

At Tuesday’s workshop, NOAA officials talked about reintroducing salmon into stretches of the Sacramento and McCloud rivers above Shasta Dam, but they did not say what changes would be needed at the dam to allow the fish to travel downstream.

Photo courtesy of u.s. bureau of reclamation

For more than three hours Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 20), about three dozen people sat in a room at the Chico Masonic Center with fish on their brains. In particular, chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

The group was mostly men in plaid shirts and baseball caps who came from as far away as Fort Bragg and Redding to talk about what can be done to increase the fish in our rivers and ocean.

The answer was complicated—but while some were concerned about the fishing industry and others about the environment, they did get an answer. It just might take a while.

“This is a long-term plan to ensure the viability of the species,” explained Howard Brown, a representative of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), who explained that the extensive study of Northern California’s fish habitats was begun in 2001. About a year and a half ago, NOAA brought its findings before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game. The agency had received somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 comments.

Now NOAA has come back with a draft of an in-depth plan to increase three threatened species in a number of waterways, and the organization’s National Marine Fisheries Service branch is seeking public input.

Hence the workshop Tuesday afternoon—and another that evening. Wednesday two workshops were offered in Sacramento. The goals of the workshops were to generate comments and questions and disseminate the information gathered over the course of eight years.

The study was multipronged. First, a team was formed to look at the number of spring- and winter-run salmon as well as steelhead. It was clear the species were in peril—the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed all three either “endangered” or “threatened” since the 1990s, and fishing seasons in the North State as well as on the coast have been cut short the past two years to ensure their survival.

In order to best understand the numbers, Northern California was broken into regions, and then threats were assessed. By far the biggest threat is dams, which account for 95 percent of fish die-off, according to the research.

Brian Ellrott, fishery biologist, explained that the researchers looked at historical data—where did these fish formerly thrive? One of the best examples of this is near Mount Shasta, where salmon historically lived in the Little Sacramento and McCloud rivers. Construction of Shasta Dam made it impossible for them to survive there.

The final step in the process of coming up with a recovery plan was to set goals for where fish can be reintroduced (the Little Sac and McCloud among the possibilities), the ideal population numbers to achieve for long-term viability, and how to maintain a strong level of diversity.

“Our approach is to secure existing populations and habitat and then reintroduce fish to historic habitats,” Ellrott told the room full of people. Not discussed was how to get the fish past all the dams blocking their passage.

(Currently, a series of small dams on Battle Creek are being dismantled to open that rich spawning area, and a tentative agreement has been signed to decommission four hydropower dams on the Klamath River.)

Much research is yet to be completed. For example, while priorities have been set for where fish should be reintroduced, there are no data on how many fish need to be reintroduced there in order for them to thrive, where those fish will come from—possibly Butte Creek or the Feather River, Ellrott said—and how many fish they can take from those places so as not to disturb their already dwindling populations.

“Our plan is going to be challenging, and it’s going to push limits,” admitted Brown, “but it is attainable.”

About an hour into the presentation, NOAA representatives broke into four groups, one of them devoted to the recovery strategy. This was an opportunity to ask the experts questions and poke holes in their plan. Brown and Ellrott took it all in stride.

One of the biggest questions, posed by the Butte Environmental Council’s former president, Barbara Vlamis, regarded water in general. Everybody wants it, she said. There’s legislation going through the state and Congress regarding Northern California’s groundwater—which feeds into our streams that are part of the natural ecosystem for these threatened fish.

Ellrott said NOAA had the opportunity last week to go to Washington to brief Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein on the recovery plan and its reliance on local water sources.

Another question involved the number of fish required to delist them from EPA threatened or endangered status. As it stands, the plan calls for 2,500 of any particular species to be deemed viable.

“If you delist a species at 2,500, in a decade you can kiss them goodbye,” one man said.

Ellrott acknowledged the idea was complicated. The 2,500 figure refers to “escapement” numbers, or the numbers left after commercial fishing and natural die-off. Plus, that number would be monitored over about a 10-year period to ensure that the natural ebb and flow of numbers stayed at that high level, a level that limits inbreeding. That seemed to put everybody more at ease.

“With these criteria, we think we can get them to a low risk of extinction over 100 years,” Brown said.

These public workshops were just the first phase in the public-comment period, which lasts until Dec. 7. The NOAA expects to have its final draft of the recovery plan finished by spring 2010—but with all the research and trials left to be done, it could take a decade to really start implementing these changes. Brown emphasized they’d be taking a phased approach, starting with what they’ve deemed the highest priorities.

A vast amount of information is available regarding the recovery plan online. Visit to read it. There are also a number of diagrams and maps to help explain the highly complicated subject.

By the end of the breakout sessions people seemed more at ease with the NOAA’s plan than at the beginning. But questions still loom, and some, like Ryan Brown, just want something to be done already.

“It’s the same old, same old,” said Brown, an environmental consultant and biologist living in Chico who attended the afternoon session. “They need to start acting. The research has been done—now get people on the ground to increase the habitat.”