Winter-Run Salmon Update – August 2020

In my last update, March 2019, I summarized the population trends of winter-run Chinook salmon through 2017. In this post I include run estimates for 2018 and 2019. The trend indicates the population is recovering from the poor runs in 2016 and 2017 (Figures 1and 2), which were the consequence of poor spawning and rearing conditions.

The improvement is the result of more hatchery contributions and better natural contributions. The strong spawner-recruit relationship continues (Figure 3), with an improved 2019 run that spawned (in hatchery and wild) in summer of normal year 2016 and reared and emigrated during wet water year 2017. In contrast, the poor 2016 and 2017 runs were a consequence of critical drought conditions during spawning (2013 and 2014) and rearing/emigration (fall-winter of water years 2014 and 2015). The 2017 run could have been even worse had hatchery smolt releases not been doubled in winter 2015.

NMFS (2019) concluded the recovery was due to increased hatchery contributions and “better water management”. The latter is simply not true. Year 2017 was a wet year that contributed to good fall-winter survival of broodyear 2016 (Figure 4). By December 2019 NMFS knew that its draft biological opinion was being revised to limit protections.1

The prognosis for the 2020 run (from brood year 2017) is good given wet year summer spawning and incubation conditions in 2017 and normal year winter 2018 conditions. With hatchery stocking back to the normal 200,000 annual smolt level in the Sacramento River at Redding, a run of 3000-5000 can reasonably be expected despite the depleted spawning run in 2017. High summer egg-to-fry survival in 2017 (Figure 4) will also contribute. The 2020 run may also benefit from the initial release of 215,000 winter run hatchery smolts into Battle Creek in 2018. Some of these will return as two-year-old “jacks and jills” in 2020.

Several factors make the prognoses for the 2021 and 2022 (and future) runs less optimistic. Egg/fry survival of wild winter-run was lower again in 2018 and 2019 (Figure 4). The new (October 2019) federal Biological Opinion for winter-run is less protective than the Opinion it replaced,2 and the Bureau of Reclamation’s new water management is explicitly directed toward maximizing water deliveries.

On the positive side, hatchery releases including releases into Battle Creek continued in 2019 and 2020, and the estimates of migrating juvenile winter-run were higher for brood year 2019 in wet summer 2019 (Figure 5). As a result of a Settlement Agreement with CSPA, the State Water Board has required the Bureau of Reclamation to develop new protocols to meet water temperature requirements in the Sacramento River. It remains to be seen how these protocols translate into practice.

In the past three decades, the essential needs for winter-run salmon have not been met.3 Management of winter-run salmon must improve survival of wild eggs and juveniles in the summer spawning and fall-winter rearing-emigration seasons, with supplementary hatchery smolt releases as necessary. We cannot simply rely on wet years to keep wild winter-run salmon going in the Sacramento River.

Figure 1. Spawning population estimates of adult winter-run salmon in the upper Sacramento River from 1974 to 2019. Source: CDFW GrandTab and NMFS.

Figure 2. Spawning population estimate since 1997 showing proportion of hatchery and wild adult spawners. Source: NMFS (2019).

Figure 3. Spawners versus recruits (spawners three years later) transformed (logx minus 2). Year is recruit year spawners. For example, 2017 is the run size for 2017, representing spawners from brood year 2014. Color denotes water-year type in fall-winter rearing/emigration year: bold red is critical year, non-bold red is dry year, yellow is below-normal year, and blue is wet year. For example, red 15 and dot margin represent critical water year 2013. Yellow dot fill represents spawning year was a below-normal water year. Note 2016 and 2017 had both critically dry year summer spawning and fall-winter rearing-emigration. The blue 2019 point is a preliminary estimate.

Figure 4. First summer survival rate by brood year based on egg and fry production rate estimates. Egg number is derived from adult spawner estimates. Fry number is derived from Red Bluff screw trap estimates. Source: NMFS.

Figure 5. Brood year winter-run salmon early life history and abundance (2005-2019) as measured at Red Bluff. Source:


Partnership Shares Science to Find Fish and Water Solutions

“This month six California and federal agencies representing water management, fish, and wildlife, along with the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, signed onto the Sacramento River Science Partnership. The Partnership establishes an interagency science collaborative in which members will develop, share and discuss science to inform water management activities and protection of fish in the mainstem Sacramento River.” (8/25/20 News Release)

  •  The seven signatories will foster and advance science to inform sustainable solutions to water management challenges including conflicts between water supply delivery and fish survival.

The time when anyone thought that the problems confronting Central Valley salmon could be solved with more science is long gone. The problems and solutions have not really changed in the 40+ years I have been involved. And the problems are only getting worse. Why is it so hard to address them?

The Problems

As a consequence of rainfall, snowmelt, reservoir storage and release, and water diversions, flows in the Sacramento River, have become so low and erratic that they strand salmon spawning redds and create prolonged high water temperatures in the juvenile rearing and migration reaches of salmon. It is a wonder that there are any wild salmon left. Without hatcheries, there would be few if any salmon in the Central Valley at all.

Spring-Summer Water Temperatures

Spring-summer water temperatures in the lower Sacramento River are bad. They kill salmon and sturgeon, block migrations, lead to poor juvenile salmon growth, early migration, high predation, and cause huge predation problems for young hatchery and wild salmon. The high temperatures exceed state water quality standards and water project permit requirements. Yes, water temperatures were bad during the 2013-2015 critical drought, as might be expected (Figure 1). But they have also been bad in the five normal and wet years (2016-2020) since the drought (Figure 2). The safe level is 65°F, but the standard is set at 68°F, above which stress and higher mortality occurs. 68° is supposed to be an upper limit that should not be exceeded, and in past decades it rarely was. It is now the accepted norm, and even then it is not enforced.

In 2020 (Figure 3) spring water temperatures were detrimental to the upstream migration of endangered winter-run and spring-run salmon, emigrating juvenile fall-run salmon, and larval and juvenile sturgeon. High summer temperatures hinder migration of adult fall-run salmon and are detrimental to survival of winter-run fry, over-summering late-fall-run and fall-run salmon smolts, and rearing juvenile sturgeon.

Fall Drops in Water Levels

Often, usually in October-November, flow releases from Shasta reservoir drop sharply in response to decreasing downstream irrigation demands. The decreases lead to fall-run salmon redd dewatering in the upper river spawning area near Redding and poor habitat and emigration flows for winter-run and late-fall run juvenile salmon.


Adult and juvenile salmon are stranded throughout the Sacramento River floodplain after winter-spring, high-flow events. In addition, drops in water surface elevation of four feet in the fall (Figures 4 and 5), soon after spawning de-water the vast majority of fall-run spawning redds in the 20-mile spawning reach downstream of Keswick Dam. Drops in flows after floodway weir spills (Figures 6 and 7) strand adult salmon and sturgeon that are migrating upstream, and also strand juvenile downstream emigrants in the Sutter and Yolo floodway bypasses.

Hatchery Releases

Releases of millions of hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead smolts in winter and spring into the lower Sacramento River from federal and state hatcheries compromise wild salmon and steelhead fry, fingerling, and smolt survival throughout the lower Sacramento River. Hatchery salmon and steelhead prey upon and compete with wild salmon and steelhead, and attract non-native predatory striped bass that also feed on wild salmon and steelhead.


A new science plan for the upper reaches of the lower Sacramento River is not going to solve the problems that stem from failure to act on what science has told us for decades.

Solutions to the problems outlined above abound. These solutions are well documented in the Central Valley Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan (NMFS 2014) and other stakeholder plans.1 The most important solution, is water temperature limits in the lower Sacramento River, which were adopted decades ago in state water permits and water quality control plans. These limits designed to protect salmon are simply no longer enforced.

Figure 1. Water temperature in the lower Sacramento River from 2013-2015 critical drought years near Grimes, CA. Also shown is average for the past 11 years of record.

Figure 2. Water temperature in the lower Sacramento River from 2016-2020 post-drought years near Grimes, CA. Also shown is average for the past 11 years of record.

Figure 3. Water temperature in the lower Sacramento River in 2020 near Grimes, CA. Also shown is average for the past 11 years of record.

Figure 4. Sacramento River flows in fall of 2013 below Keswick Dam near Redding.

Figure 5. Sacramento River water surface elevation in fall of 2013 below Keswick Dam.

Figure 6. Spills of water from Sacramento River over Tisdale flood control weir during the period from December 2013 to February 2015. Source: CDEC

Figure 7. Spills of water from Sacramento River over Tisdale flood control weir during the period from January 2016 to May 2017. Source: CDEC

“Improbable Comeback” Not Looking Probable

In an April 19, 2020 blog post entitled Science of an underdog: the improbable comeback of spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River, a UC Davis team describes the efforts over the past five years to recover spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin as a “good comeback story.” It is a great story – as far as it goes.  Eighteen years of litigation and fifteen years of restoration work have put water back in a river that Friant Dam completely dried up in 1950.  There are also some spring-run salmon in the river, and a few made it from near Fresno to the ocean and back in the last few years.

The goal of the reintroduction program is the long-term maintenance of a population of 30,000 spawning adults with negligible hatchery influence.  The count for the 2019 run was 23.  Reaching the goal is highly improbable in the present scheme of things.

Why?  As the UC Davis team stated:  “Most of the tagged fish that enter the interior Delta simply don’t make it out.”  Juvenile salmon from natural spawning areas and hatcheries do not survive downstream passage downstream to and through the Delta in necessary numbers to make the goal achievable.  There are simply too many “obstacles.”

The UC Davis team also stated:  “It is notably sad and ironic perhaps, that the quality of habitat in the lower river is so poor that the best migration path for salmon appears to be as a salvaged fish, trucked around the Delta by DWR or BOR staff.”  The word “best” is just the wrong word to describe a path and procedure that is founded on a dysfunctional fish salvage system that at its best saves a tiny fraction of the fish that the Delta pumps pull off course and ultimately decimate.  Returns of adult salmon to the San Joaquin River are extremely low (Figure 1).  Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation “staff” collect and truck these totally misdirected, stressed, and abused fish, and dump them into the waiting mouths of predators in the west Delta, not even bothering to truck salvaged fish to the Bay.  Compared to Sacramento River hatchery smolts, the odds of San Joaquin hatchery smolts being “salvaged” are one to two orders of magnitude higher (Table 1).

What could help recover San Joaquin River spring-run salmon?

  1. Reduce exports from the south Delta, especially from March through May.
  2. Increase San Joaquin River and tributary flows during adult and juvenile migration seasons.
  3. Improve habitat in spawning, rearing, and migration corridors from spawning reaches to the Bay.
  4. Capture wild juvenile spring-run below spawning reaches and transport them to the Bay.
  5. Transport hatchery and wild smolts via barge or floating net pens from lower rivers to the Bay.

So far minimal progress has been made on measures 1-3.  As yet, there has been no attempt to address measures 4 and 5 other than pilot studies (encouraging) by the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery.

“Ironic” is also the wrong word to describe how Delta salvage operations are the least impossible longshot for San Joaquin smolts: it is absolutely infuriating that thirty years of dedicated and talented legal, biological and in-river effort can be undone by the Delta operations that DWR and BOR have just made more efficient at fish killing.

TABLE 1.  Comparison of “loss” in Delta salvage facilities between San Joaquin hatchery spring-run smolts and other Central Valley salmon hatchery smolts 2016-2020.  Note the word “loss” is used instead of “salvaged” in these tallies.  Source: 1. Comparison of “loss” in Delta salvage facilities between San Joaquin hatchery spring-run smolts and other Central Valley salmon hatchery smolts 2016-2020. Note the word “loss” is used instead of “salvaged” in these tallies Table 1. Continued. Table 1. Continued.

Figure 1. Hatchery tag adult returns from San Joaquin releases in 2016 (dry San Joaquin water year). Green dots are San Joaquin hatchery spring run released above Merced River in San Joaquin. Blue dots are releases from Merced hatchery fall run released to the Delta near Sherman Island. Orange dots are Mokelumne hatchery fall run released to the Delta near Sherman Island unless specified: GGB = Golden Gate Bridge, HMB = Half Moon Bay on coast, R = Mokelumne River. Data source:

Spring 2020 Sacramento River Conditions and Hatchery Releases

Federal and state hatcheries are feeding striped bass with juvenile salmon in the Sacramento River and Delta yet again this spring.  As of April 22, 2020, hatcheries have released over 16 million salmon smolts into the Sacramento River system (Table 1).  While about two-thirds of these releases so far took place under relatively good conditions (moderate flows, flow pulses, and cool water through early April), the latest one-third have been released under increasingly lower flows and high, stressful water temperatures (Figures 1 and 2) that lead to high rates of predation.  Hatchery smolts lingering from the earlier releases are also subjected to these conditions.  Millions of wild smolts are also at risk, as they too have been emigrating with the early April flow pulse (Figure 3).

In addition to predatory fish like striped bass, another predaor also lurks in the south Delta: the federal and state export pumps (Figures 4 and 5).

With millions more hatchery smolts and wild emigrants to come through early June, the prognosis for future adult returns from these fish looks grim unless some effort is exerted by water agencies to increase river flows and Delta inflow/outflow in the coming weeks.  Future hatchery releases this spring should be transported to the Bay.  Flow pulses are needed, but those prescribed in the new federal biological opinion are only required in wetter years.  Flows in the Sacramento River at a minimum should be above 5000 cfs at Wilkins Slough and above 10,000 cfs at Freeport.  Water temperatures should be maintained below 18°C/65°F to give emigrating salmon a chance to survive.

Table 1.  Major Sacramento River hatchery smolt releases in spring 2020.

Figure 1. Flow and water temperature in the lower Sacramento River at Wilkins Slough spring 2020. Yellow lines denote major hatchery smolt releases into the upper river.

Figure 2. Flow and water temperature in the lower Sacramento River at Freeport in the north Delta spring 2020. Yellow lines denote major hatchery smolt releases into the upper Sacramento River. Magenta lines denote major hatchery smolt releases into the Feather River.

Figure 3. Salmon smolt survey collections of unmarked juvenile hatchery and wild salmon in 2020. Magenta circle outline winter fry movement. Green circles denote spring smolt movement. Note movement peaks coincident with flow pulses.

Figure 4. Salvage of unmarked juvenile hatchery and wild salmon at south Delta export facilities in water year 2019-2020.

Figure 5. Salvage of unmarked juvenile hatchery and wild salmon at south Delta export facilities in water year 2019-2020.

Preserving and Restoring Wild Salmon Populations while Sustaining Commercial and Sport Fisheries with Hatcheries

The Problem

Hatcheries bypass the high mortality life-history phases of wild salmon populations.  As a result, hatcheries contribute far greater salmon smolt production to the ocean per number of eggs than do wild populations.  Without hatcheries, the replacement rate of Central Valley salmon populations would be less than 1-to-1, and the populations would move toward extinction.  Without hatcheries, there would be no commercial or sport salmon fisheries in California today.

But hatcheries bring many real problems for wild salmon.  These problems include in-breeding/domestication, disease transmission, and over-harvest of, competition for, and direct and indirect predation on wild salmon populations.  In-breeding has already had dramatic effects on the salmon populations, leading to the loss or degradation of many important life-history traits and of subpopulations that carry these traits (the “Portfolio Effect”).

Having lost many traits that nature provided over millions of years of natural selection, hatchery salmon today are simply less able to cope with the new world they now face.  They mature younger and smaller.  They are less able to adapt to changes in their food supply.  They often can’t compete and are less able to avoid predators.  Many arrive on spawning grounds too early, and others can’t find their natal streams.  Their offspring are also far less capable of coping with the stress and adversities, including harvest, pollution, and habitat loss and degradation.

Over-harvest, competition, and straying of hatchery fish has led to the dominance of hatchery fish in the Central Valley salmon populations and homogenization among the populations.  Some populations now survive only in hatcheries or in captive breeding programs.

The Solution

Many of elements of the problem have already occurred and are difficult to overcome.  While some elements are irreversible, it is not too late to limit or reduce some of the negative effects.  A comprehensive set of actions and strategies can avoid, minimize, mitigate, or even reverse these effects.  These actions and strategies should include:

1.      Reduce competition between hatchery and wild salmon in spawning, rearing, and migrating habitat.

  • Do not allow hatchery salmon to spawn in prime wild salmon spawning areas. Sorting at weirs can preclude passing hatchery spawners if hatchery fish are all marked.
  • Do not release hatchery juveniles into rearing and migrating habitats heavily used by remaining stocks of wild salmon. Programs throughout the range of Pacific coast salmon, including the Central Valley, now release hatchery smolts into net pens in rearing areas less frequented by wild salmon.  The best fishery returns to the Central Valley have been from smolts released from coastal net pens.

2.      Reduce straying of hatchery origin spawners into other spawning rivers.

  • Barge hatchery smolts to reduce competition and predation on wild juvenile salmon and decrease the straying of adults that results from trucking.  Barging can help imprint smolts on home rivers and hatcheries.
  • Monitor and sort adult salmon returns in rivers and hatcheries to further eliminate straying.
  • Focus more hatchery production on rivers and streams that do not support significant wild salmon.

3.      Increase harvest of hatchery salmon, while reducing harvest of wild salmon.

  • Focus harvest on hatchery stocks to help protect wild stocks. Release hatchery smolts into locations that focus harvest of adults in areas not frequented by wild salmon.  Adult hatchery salmon tend to stay in or return to areas where smolts were released.
  • Increase existing efforts to reduce the mixed-stock harvesting problem by reducing mixed-stock fishery exploitation rates to levels that are sustainable by wild stocks. Promote selective harvest of hatchery fish by permitting sport fishermen to retain only hatchery fish or to retain more hatchery fish than wild fish.  This would require marking most or all hatchery smolts.

4.      Improve disease control.

  • Hatchery fish experience greater susceptibility to infectious diseases due to higher rearing densities, higher levels of stress and poorer water quality. Diseases/infections can be spread to wild population elements, though research is needed to determine the extent of this threat.
  • Improve filtration systems at hatcheries to reduce the disease threat. This will also alleviate concerns about reintroducing salmon and steelhead upstream of hatcheries.

5.      Improve the genetic makeup of hatchery (and wild) salmon

  • Reverse engineer aspects of genetic diversity that has been selected out. Preferentially spawn 4-5 year-old adults at hatcheries.  Diversify timing of adult runs by breeding hatchery fish throughout the spawning run.  The Mokelumne Fish Hatchery is already implementing many such practices.  “Bad alleles can be purged.”
  • Use conservation hatchery actions to enhance the genetic diversity and fitness to help recover depleted wild populations.
  • Use more wild fish for hatchery broodstocks, particularly fish with more favorable traits.
  • Do not allow adult hatchery fish into spawning habitat used by wild fish.
  • Be more selective in choosing spawners for hatcheries.
  • Develop and support pure strains of wild salmon above dams through trap and haul programs.
  • Promote populations and subpopulations that protect or increase diversity (improve the Portfolio).
  • Develop captive stocks with desired natural traits – with less genetic drift, inbreeding and domestication,
  • Increase monitoring, research, experimentation, and adaptive management on the extent and consequences of domestication selection, as well as steps that may be taken to reduce its effects.
  • Evaluate and operate each hatchery program independently to address its program and its contribution to the overall problem.


Wild salmon populations in California’s Central Valley are already compromised to various degrees by hatchery salmon, over-harvest, and habitat degradation.  More can be done to protect wild salmon production and minimize the threat from hatcheries, while continuing to provide valuable commercial and sport fisheries supported by hatcheries.  We can save our salmon and eat them too.

For a more comprehensive scientific review of these subjects see Sturrock et al. 2019 and Nash et al. 2007.