Federal Hatchery Salmon Avoid Cali Drought, Catch Ride to Delta

San Francisco – For the second year in a row hatchery managers are trucking millions of juvenile salmon to the Delta from hatcheries in the drought-stricken Central Valley. The Golden Gate Salmon Association welcomed the arrival of trucked fish which represent hope for a fishing season in 2017 when they’ll be adults. 


The first of the fish being trucked come from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery located hundreds of miles up the Sacramento River. GGSA spent months negotiating with state and federal fish agencies in late 2013 and early 2014 to win agreement that drought conditions made the river virtually impassable to baby salmon and that trucking would be needed.  This led to the creation of criteria that when met, would trigger future trucking of hatchery salmon. These criteria are tied to low river flow levels, high in-river water temperatures, and several other factors. 

After a short acclimation period in floating net pens, the trucked fish will be released to migrate to the ocean.

Ordinarily Coleman hatchery releases its fish at the hatchery into Battle Creek, near Redding.  Baby salmon are poor swimmers.  They’ve evolved to hitch a ride, or be “flushed” from their birth rivers to the Delta, bay, and ocean on spring runoff, something lacking this year.  Spring runoff generally provides the high, turbid flows that minimize predation by moving the small salmon quickly and offering them the natural camouflage turbid conditions provide. In drought, rivers run extremely low and clear and generally heat up beyond what young salmon can take.

“Our 2017 fishing season may be riding on the survival of the fish in these trucks,” said GGSA executive director John McManus.  “With drought conditions making the rivers deadly, these trucked salmon will survive at much higher rates than if they were released at the hatcheries. This could mean the difference between a shutdown of the fishery in 2017 and a decent year.”

Coleman hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and raises approximately 12 million baby fall run salmon annually to help mitigate for the destruction of habitat caused by Shasta Dam and federal water operations in the Upper Sacramento River.  All Central Valley dams, including Shasta, were built with no fish ladders to allow salmon to reach their historic spawning grounds.  Coleman and other salmon hatcheries were created to mitigate for this loss of habitat.

California’s state-operated hatcheries normally truck much of their baby salmon to the Delta or bay.  This year they plan to truck all of them unless unexpected heavy storms develop in April and May that swell the rivers. Barring that, trucking Central Valley hatchery salmon is expected to continue into June.

“Although transporting the baby salmon in tanker trucks and releasing them into the bay or western Delta will greatly increase their chances of survival, it’s not our preferred option” said McManus. “We’d rather see functioning, healthy rivers and a Delta that support natural and hatchery salmon.”

The Rio Vista release site was picked in part because it’s safely downstream of the deadly Delta Cross channel, a manmade canal that diverts the Sacramento River to huge pumps that send it to agriculture, killing salmon in the process.

“As more and more fresh water is extracted from the Sacramento River and Delta for delivery to western San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, the salmon’s migration corridor through the Bay-Delta estuary has become a deadly gauntlet,” said GGSA vice chairman Zeke Grader who is also the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Add drought, and the Central Valley rivers and Delta become virtually impassable for salmon which is why we need this year’s hatchery fish to be trucked.”

Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity 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 fishing men and women, recreational anglers (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal communities, fishing guides, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, tribes, and the salmon fishing industry at large.