Water Quality Standards Optional

On May 5, I reported on the “chumming of stripers” with the late season release of millions of hatchery smolts into the warm, low flows of the Sacramento and Feather rivers.  So what more could the state and federal managers do to improve conditions for our salmon, steelhead, smelt, sturgeon, and other fish resources?    They could start by obeying and enforcing the rules already on the books.

Because of the restrictions placed on South Delta state and federal water project exports by rules governing San Joaquin River steelhead, exports are now restricted to no more than about 2500 cfs.  Such low exports at this time of year have in fact been the norm for the past 20 years under water quality standards and endangered species biological opinions.  The steelhead biological opinion for the San Joaquin is relatively restrictive this year because of the San Joaquin’s dry-year designation.

So what is the problem?  Because it cannot export, the US Bureau of Reclamation is releasing minimum flows from the warm surface waters of a full Shasta Reservoir.

This causes violations of the standards for Sacramento River water temperature.  The upper Sacramento River standard of 56°F has been violated: water temperatures have been running 60-62°F.  The lower river standard of 68°F has also been violated. water temperatures are running 70-72°F.  These conditions contribute to:

  1. Poor survival adult winter and spring run salmon in their peak migration perio;,
  2. Poor egg survival of winter run in the first month of spawning season;
  3. Poor late fall run salmon fry survival;
  4. Poor sturgeon egg survival during their peak spawning season; and
  5. Poor hatchery and wild smolt survival to the Bay.

The Delta outflow-salinity standard under D-1641 requires salinity at Chipps Island to be no more than 2.64 mmhos on a 14-day running average; the most recent 14-day average is above 3.0 mmhos.  With minimal Sacramento River inflow, Delta outflow has reached as low as 8,000 cfs in early May 2016.  These conditions contribute to:

  1. Poor migratory flows for adult and juvenile fall, winter, and spring run salmon, steelhead, and green and white sturgeon;
  2. Poor longfin and delta smelt survival; and
  3. Poor Delta and Bay productivity.

The standards (rules) governing the Central Valley rivers and Delta are there for a reason: to protect water quality, fish, and ecosystem function.  They do not contain the caveat: ‘Comply when convenient.’  They don’t have an exception that reads: ‘No Exports?  No Problem.  Release what meets your sense of order.’  With such gross disregard for the rules, it is no wonder our fisheries resources are in such a poor state.

Water temperature in past month at Bend Bridge near Red Bluff. Note: in 2010, the last below normal water year, water temperature did not exceed 58°F during first 12 days in May.

Water temperature in past month at Bend Bridge near Red Bluff. Note: in 2010, the last below normal water year, water temperature did not exceed 58°F during first 12 days in May.

River flow in past month at Wilkins Slough below Colusa on middle Sacramento River. Note: flow was 7000-13,000 cfs during first 12 days of May 2010, the last below-normal water year

River flow in past month at Wilkins Slough below Colusa on middle Sacramento River. Note: flow was 7000-13,000 cfs during first 12 days of May 2010, the last below-normal water year

Delta outflow in past month. Note: outflow in the first 12 days of May 2010, the last below normal year, was 20,000-30,000 cfs.

Delta outflow in past month. Note: outflow in the first 12 days of May 2010, the last below normal year, was 20,000-30,000 cfs.

Hatcheries Release Salmon Smolts into Low Flows and Warm Water – April and early May, 2016

April 13. CBS San Francisco reports:

The federal government is funding the release of millions of Baby Chinook salmon into Battle Creek at the Coleman Federal Hatchery outside Red Bluff. Brett Galyean, deputy project leader at Coleman Federal Hatchery, said, “It’s a big day. It’s the first time in two years that we were able to release all the fish on station…. Because of the drought the last two years, the environmental conditions in the Sacramento River — warm water, low flow — caused us to truck fish.”… However, of the 12 million fish released, only one percent are expected to return to Battle Creek in three years to spawn.

April 29. Recent fishing report states:

This spring’s striper fishing on the Sacramento River has been going very well with daily limits of large Sacramento River striped bass. Most of the action has been from Colusa downriver through Verona as the Sacramento River is very low due to minimal releases from Keswick Dam and high volumes of irrigation pumping from the lower Sacramento River. Stripers mostly 18 to 24 inches are coming in daily with some very large female stripers 15 to 25 pounds coming in as well. Drifting live jumbo minnows has been working best in the daytime while black worms or white swim baits are working at night. The Coleman National Fish Hatchery has released the remaining 6 million fall-run juvenile salmon smolt into the Sacramento River. With low flows coupled with the massive irrigation pumping, the lower Sacramento River from Butte City downriver through Verona is extremely low, leaving exposed sand and gravel bars across the river. This is setting the stage for an incredible striper fishing as the smolts arrive in the lower Sacramento River. Striper fishing should be incredible as the stripers feed day and night on the hatchery salmon smolt just like last month when the first round of hatchery Sacramento River salmon smolt were released. Sacramento fishing.com fishing guide Dave Jacobs has witnessed countless striper boils as the spawning stripers have fed around the clock on the salmon smolts from Butte City downriver through Verona.

May 1. Yet another fishing report notes:

The striper action has been incredible for the past several weeks. While many of the stripers are post spawn they are hanging out and destroying recent salmon plants coming out of the hatcheries…. Before the past weekend, he found great action on the Feather River, but heavy boat traffic over the weekend slowed down the Feather since an armada showed up. Salmon smolts were released in the Feather this past week, and the combination of low flows and clear water made for a killing zone for the smolts…. The bite lasted until most of the baby salmon made it to the Sacramento River, and I was able to follow them down the Sacramento a couple of miles until the fishing got tough…. The California Department Fish and Wildlife hatchery on the Feather river is planning on releasing their final stock of 1 million into the Feather river instead of trucking them around the river and Delta pumps to the Suisun Bay. The Federal hatchery on Battle creek released 4 plus million salmon fry this past week and will dumping an additional 1.9 million fall run fish into Battle Creek this coming Friday. The is [sic] opposed to these releases due to the current lower flows and clear water. With high numbers of spawning stripers and low / clear flows most of these fish will never make it as far as Sacramento. Past studies have shown that 94% of hatchery salmon released on the upper Sac never make it to San Pablo bay in these conditions.

May 2. SacBee Fishing continues the theme:

SACRAMENTO RIVER, Red Bluff to Colusa – Salmon smolts have been released from Coleman National Fish Hatchery, and are expected to fuel a hot striper bite from Butte City to Verona. The river is dropping, which caused many of the stripers to drop downstream last week. Anglers now expect stripers to move upriver to feed on the salmon smolts.

Sacramento River Conditions

The Sacramento River water quality Basin Plan objective requires no water temperature greater than 56°F upstream of Hamilton City and no temperature greater than 68°F upstream of Sacramento. Water temperature Red Bluff (upstream of Hamilton City) has already reached a daily average of 62°F, well above the required limit (and this with Shasta full of cold water). Water temperatures below Hamilton City have reached 69°F (at Wilkins Slough). Downstream-migrating smolts are stressed and more vulnerable to predation as water temperatures approach 60°F, yet managers continue to release hatchery smolts from the Battle Creek and Feather River hatcheries. Adult winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, now migrating upstream in the Sacramento River, are also being stressed by water temperatures greater than 65°F. The 60-65°F range is optimal for striped bass feeding and metabolism. ARE THE HATCHERY SMOLTS SIMPLY CHUM FOR STRIPERS???

Sac at Red Bluff

Salmon Fishermen Protest

The Golden Gate Salmon Association1 and other sport fishing and commercial salmon organizations are protesting the release of Feather River Fish Hatchery salmon smolts into the Feather River near Marysville. In 2016, all four major salmon hatcheries are releasing most of their fall-run salmon smolts into the rivers near the hatcheries. In the drier (and some wet) years of the past two decades, many hatchery smolts have been trucked to the Bay or west Delta and released there after holding in acclimation pens. With higher water releases in this wetter year, hatcheries will now depend on the smolts reaching the Golden Gate in the higher river flows (Sacramento 4500 cfs, Feather 3000 cfs, and American 3000 cfs).

Federal and State fisheries scientists continue to believe it is better to release the fall-run hatchery smolts in the rivers to reduce straying. This logic for this poor management strategy is weak, for the following reasons:

  1. The fall-run stocks are all of the same genetic makeup. Many runs, including those to the San Joaquin tributaries, depend heavily on hatchery fish that have strayed from other rivers. To think that high stray rates of fall-run is the paramount problem is simply crazy. In my own carcass surveys on the Yuba River (no hatchery) and the Cosumnes River (no dam or hatchery), almost all the fall-run were hatchery strays.
  2. Trucking the smolts to the Bay increases survival and fishable stocks in the rivers and the ocean 5 to 10 fold. The socio-economic benefits of salmon fishing depend almost entirely on trucking smolts. Without trucking, ocean and river fisheries will be closed, as occurred during the past decade.
  3. Releasing the smolts in rivers in late April and May is a waste of the resource because only a few percent reach the Golden Gate, compared with 99% that are trucked or barged. The rivers are too warm, even with this year’s higher flows. The Delta remains a black hole for hatchery smolts. Predators are much more active in spring than in the winter, when fall-run naturally migrate through the Bay and Delta. Feather River fall-run hatchery fry stocked in Yolo Bypass rice fields at the beginning of February smolted and emigrated by the first of March.
  4. Releasing smolts in the rivers only encourages and benefits predators, training them to feast in rivers on salmon rather than other normal prey, and increasing growth and survival of predators including birds, striped bass, pikeminnow, and black bass. Stripers now leave their normal habitats in the Bay and Delta for the feast in the rivers. Spawning stripers stay longer in the rivers, feeding on the smolt bounty. A recent video from the Feather River near the hatchery smolt release site shows stripers feeding on hatchery smolts, visual evidence of the negative aspects of the strategy.2 It does not take fishermen long to catch on either.3
  5. The hatchery smolts, including millions of steelhead yearlings, compete with and prey upon wild salmon and steelhead juveniles. The wild late-fall-run salmon in the Sacramento River and all the wild steelhead in the Central Valley rivers are all small fry in spring, and are tasty morsels for the big hatchery smolts.

If straying is such a concern of federal and state fisheries scientists, then why not barge the smolts from the rivers, through the Delta to the Golden Gate, as I have previously suggested?4 Otherwise these scientists should stop wasting tax dollars and license fees of California sport fishermen in the bad practice of releasing hatchery smolts in Central Valley rivers. Furthermore, federal, state and other biologists should quit blaming the problem on stripers that have been around for over a hundred years. Stripers are not as stupid as this hatchery strategy is.