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).