The Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River produces approximately 4 million fall-run Chinook salmon smolts each year for release to the American River and to San Pablo Bay (after being held there in net pens). Releases are made from late April to early June. Release return rates are available for 2007-2015.1 In 2014 and 2015, all releases were to the Bay. From 2016 to 2018, a substantial proportion of releases were to the American River.
Return rates (percent captured as adults in fisheries plus percent returning as adults to spawning grounds and the hatchery) from 2007 to 2015 releases varied from 0.3 to 3.7 percent (Figure 1). Return rates were higher for wet year 2011 and normal years 2010 and 2012. Return rates for river and Bay release groups were similar in wetter years. Overall return rates in dry years were lower than return rates in wetter years, with higher returns for Bay release groups than for river release groups.
River return rates were low in years with lower flow and higher water temperature in the lower American River. American River flow was lower in late spring 2009 and 2013 (Figure 2). River temperatures were higher (>55oF) in these drier years (Figure 3), as were Delta temperatures (>68oF; Figure 4). Such conditions are detrimental to smolt survival.
Poor returns (<1%) from dry year Bay releases (<1000 cfs Delta outflow) are associated with low Delta outflows (<10,000 cfs, Figure 5). Lower ocean survival may have also contributed to poorer Bay release returns.
Conclusions and Recommendations
An optimal strategy for increasing the contribution of Nimbus Hatchery’s 4 million fall-run Chinook salmon smolts would be:
- Release smolts in the American River in wetter years with higher river flow and lower river water temperature.
- Release smolts in the Bay in dry years; do not release in river.
- Maintain Delta outflows above 10,000 cfs during periods of release of smolts to the Bay.
This strategy could increase hatchery smolt returns as much as 1%, or by 40,000 adult salmon, assuming 4 million smolts. In drier years, this would double or triple the contribution from the American River hatchery to salmon available for catch and to salmon returning to the American River to spawn.