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Central Valley Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Program Reform

Dr. Peter Moyle of the University of California, Davis commented last year commented on California salmon and steelhead hatchery reform at the California Fish and Game Commission’s Workshop on Strategic Improvement in California’s Anadromous Hatcheries, held in Sacramento on February 4, 20141.

Dr. Moyle remarked that hatcheries fail to meet their primary dual purposes of sustaining commercial and sport fisheries and assisting in recovery of wild (naturally spawning) salmon and steelhead. Hatchery strategies have led to the complete dominance (90%) of hatchery salmon and steelhead in most rivers, which will ultimately lead to “periodic shut-downs of the fisheries and extinction of most runs, even those supported by hatcheries.” He concluded that a much more radical reshaping of hatchery policy is needed.

He recommends two types of hatcheries: conservation hatcheries that focus on recovery of wild populations, and production hatcheries that focus on sustaining commercial and sport fisheries. He suggests abandoning wild salmon and steelhead management in favor of production hatcheries for some runs (e.g., Fall Run Chinook salmon).

Only the federal Sacramento River hatcheries near Redding operate in the recommended manner. The federal Livingston Stone Hatchery is a model conservation hatchery for endangered Winter Run Chinook Salmon. The Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek is a production hatchery for Fall Run, Late Fall Run, and Spring Run Chinook, as well as steelhead. Only wild Late Fall Run, Spring Run, and Winter Run Chinook and steelhead are allowed to pass Coleman’s diversion dam to spawn in upper Battle Creek. Upper Battle Creek thus serves as a wild fish conservation hatchery.

The state hatcheries on the Feather, American, Mokelumne, and Merced rivers operate as production hatcheries, mitigating for the blockage of these major Central Valley salmon tributaries by dams. These hatcheries focus on Fall Run Chinook and steelhead, although the Feather River Fish Hatchery also supports Spring Run Chinook.

Only undammed Sacramento Valley tributaries Deer, Mill, Big Chico, Antelope, and Butte creeks support reliable native runs of wild Spring Run Chinook. Native-wild Spring Run are sustainable in these streams because habitats are accessible at higher elevations where over-summering habitat with deep, cool-water holding pools exists.

One way to improve production of wild fish is to develop conservation hatcheries that combine trap-and-haul programs with over-summering habitats above the dams, as recommended in the Central Valley Salmon Recovery Plan2. This would require a capture-sorting effort, as is presently done at Coleman Hatchery on Battle Creek. Wild fish would be trucked above the dams. Juvenile fish produced above the dams would be trapped and trucked downstream for release below the dams. Conservation hatchery components could be established initially at the four state hatcheries to get the program started with appropriate “wild” genetic stocks.

Wild populations of Winter Run and Spring Run could be established above Shasta Reservoir on the Sacramento River. Spring Run could be established on some combination of the upper Feather, Yuba, American, Mokelumne, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Wild steelhead could be established above the dams in any of these rivers.

Meanwhile, production hatcheries of salmon and steelhead could continue below the dams. Marking production fish would allow separation of wild and hatchery fish, as well as mark-selective fishery harvest to preserve wild fish until such time wild stocks are sustainable. Trucking/barging of production smolts to Bay would reduce predation and competition with wild fish while increasing populations of production fish for harvest.

Dr. Moyle also recommended establishing wild salmon sanctuaries, as is currently being established on upper Battle Creek. The areas above the dams are good candidates for such sanctuaries. Undammed Valley Spring Run rivers are also good candidates. Isolated tailwaters on the lower Yuba, Mokelumne, and San Joaquin rivers may also be candidates.

More on hatchery reform options can be found at: