“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:  http://www.cbr.washington.edu/sacramento/tmp/deltacwttable_1587318641_393.htmlTABLE 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: https://www.rmpc.org

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.

Hatchery Steelhead Smolts Released Just in time to Chow Down on Baby Salmon

The state and federal hatcheries in the Central Valley will be releasing 1.5 million yearling steelhead smolts this winter. The location and timing of these releases could not be worse for the survival of newly emerged wild fall-run and spring-run salmon.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released approximately 600,000 smolts from the Coleman Hatchery on Battle Creek into the Sacramento River near Redding in January. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will release approximately 900,000 steelhead smolts from state hatcheries to the lower American, Feather, and Mokelumne Rivers in February. The peak of newly emerged salmon fry is January in the Sacramento River near Redding and February in the three tributary rivers (the difference is a result of managed fall water temperatures).

In prior posts,1 I warned of releasing yearling hatchery smolts on top of wild salmon fry (see photo below). The solution is to simply stop doing this. The fish agencies should release the mitigation hatchery smolts earlier or later in the year, or truck them to the Delta or Bay as they did in the past. In general, the agencies should also release steelhead smolts during high flows, when juvenile salmon have a greater chance to evade the steelhead, and when both steelhead and salmon are likely to move more quickly downstream.

In the longer term, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should redirect their steelhead hatchery programs toward recovery of the native steelhead stocks by converting their efforts to conservation hatchery programs. Many of the native steelhead traits are less intrusive on the salmon (e. g., fall and spring migrations, spring spawning). The fish agencies should also stop using stocks whose origin is out-of-basin (American River).

Photo: yearling hatchery steelhead smolt fed on wild salmon fry in American River in February. (Photo by author)




Stanislaus River Salmon in 2020

The San Joaquin River watershed has contributed up to a third of the total Central Valley salmon run as recently as 2017, if one counts the Mokelumne River as a San Joaquin River tributary and includes its large hatchery contribution. Though the fall salmon run in the Stanislaus River includes many hatchery strays from throughout the Central Valley, the Stanislaus remains the biggest contributor of wild-produced salmon in the San Joaquin basin (Figure 1).

The Stanislaus spawner-recruit relationship (Figure 2) derived from escapement estimates indicates a positive relationship influenced by water-year type. Wetter years (blue) on average provide 10 times the recruitment per spawner as drier years, with normal years providing intermediate recruitment. Severe droughts in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s depressed recruitment and led to declining population trends. Recruitment during 2014-2018 drought-influenced period was much higher than in the prior droughts, thus maintaining a higher recent average population level. In a December 2019 post, I attributed the improvement to increases in hatchery strays as well as to spring and fall pulsed flows from prescribed reservoir releases (Figure 3). The spring flow pulses benefit smolt emigration survival. Fall flow pulses provide attraction flows as well as better spawning conditions (flows and water temperature).

Separating all the factors influencing recruitment is a challenge, but it is critical to prescribing future management. In a recent paper, Sturrock et al. 2019 found that emigrants-per-spawner and recruits-per-spawner through 2014 strongly related to within‐season stream flow variability during the winter-spring juvenile rearing period.

Variability in flow comes from storms, prescribed flow releases, and flood releases.1 Strong runs in drought-influenced 2015 and 2016 were likely higher due to the significant prescribed spring flow pulses in 2013 and 2014 (Figure 3). The strong run in 2017, despite overall poor drought-year 2015 flows (Figure 3), is likely related to the attraction of stray wild and hatchery spawners to late summer and fall prescribed pulsed flows and associated cool waters of the Stanislaus River in 2017 (Figure 4). Most of the 2015 Central Valley hatchery smolt production was trucked to the Bay and subject to high straying rates. The lower San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers provided good attraction flows and cooler waters in 2017 to accommodate adult Central Valley salmon less inclined to seek their natal streams in routes warmer than the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers.

Based on studies of salmon in the Stanislaus, Sturrock et al. (2019) provide recommendations to improve recruitment per spawner and diversity of the life-history portfolio. In recent years, recruitment in the Stanislaus has been overly dependent on the success of parr and smolts emigrating in the early spring. Survival of emigrating fry in winter and older smolts in late spring has been poor. Analyses of otolith cross-sections (ear bones) of returning adults indicated a dominance of the early spring parr-smolt life-history pattern. Quotes below in italics are from Sturrock et al.

  1. Fry emigration success has suffered from reduced winter flow peaks (In years lacking winter pulse flows, salmon tended to emigrate later, larger, and in lower numbers… predicted fry expression was 62% lower following major dam construction… Even marginal improvements to fry survival rates could significantly boost adult recruitment rates.” Winter flow pulses would increase the contribution of fry emigrants to recruitment.

  2. Parr and smolt emigration success benefitted from CVPIA/VAMP Apr-May prescribed storage releases and reduced south Delta exports. “Peak parr emigration in April coincided with managed releases intended to improve downstream survival.” Continue these early spring prescriptions.

  3. Late spring smolt emigration survival has been very low due warm water temperatures and low flows. Late spring pulse flow prescriptions would increase the contribution of older smolt emigrants to recruitment.

  4. “[S]trong suppression of any life‐history diversity—whether evolved or plastic— could have serious demographic and evolutionary consequences… negative population growth in the absence of demographic rescue by hatchery strays.” Without flow pulses in winter, early spring and late spring, the population is at risk of significant decline and loss of genetic integrity. Hatchery strays will further dominate the population and production of wild fish will decline.

Other measures suggested by Sturrock et al. (2019) included:

  • Increasing fry floodplain habitat downstream of the Stanislaus to increase fry emigrant success and the contribution of the fry emigration component of the life history portfolio to adult recruitment. “Given the substantial numbers of fry often produced, even marginal increases in their survival rates would have significant impacts on recruitment.”

  • Increasing the portfolio diversity for other Central Valley salmon populations will reduce the overall risks to Central Valley fall run salmon because “[a]djacent watersheds often experience similar climates and manage their dams for similar goals, which could homogenize emigration timings among nearby populations. Shared bottlenecks such as the Sacramento‐San Joaquin Delta could further compress emigration timings, increasing the risk of match‐mismatch events in the ocean.”

In conclusion, the Stanislaus River fall-run salmon population dynamics provide important lessons for sustaining wild salmon in the Central Valley. Sustaining life history diversity will increase salmon recruitment per spawner. It will also reduce risks of population declines and loss of genetic integrity in the wild component of salmon populations.

Figure 1. Stanislaus River fall-run Chinook salmon run (adult escapement) estimates 1952-2018. Note completion date for New Melones Dam in red. Data source: CDFW.

Figure 2. Spawner-Recruit relationship for fall-run Chinook for the Stanislaus River. Number represents recruit year (escapement for that year). Color represents water year type for San Joaquin basin during brood year rearing (two years prior). Blue is wet year. Red is dry-critical year. Green is normal year. Red circle is for poor ocean rearing conditions and/or poor river flows during spawning run. For example: year 08 represents 2008 recruitment (escapement) from 2005 spawners (both log10 -1 transformed); blue represents wet year 2006 during river rearing; red circle represents poor ocean rearing and poor river flows during 08 spawning run.

Figure 3. Stream flow in the lower Stanislaus River near Ripon in 2007-09 and 2013-15 drought years. Note prescribed reservoir releases in April-May 2013 and 2014 and October of most years.

Figure 4. Stream flow and water temperature in the lower Stanislaus River at Ripon and Orange Blossom Bridge in wet year 2017. Note water temperatures below 60oF are optimal for fall spawning. The strong spring flow pulse should lead to good 2019 adult recruitment.

  1. Flood releases are rare in the Stanislaus watershed, where storage capacity is twice annual average runoff.