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American River Hatchery Salmon Releases – 2020/2021

Escapement of American River fall-run salmon dropped after recent drought years (2013-2015, Figure 1).  It is reasonable to expect it would fall again in 2022 and 2023 as a consequence of the 2020-2021 drought period.

In a November 2, 2021 post, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced a plan to increase releases of hatchery smolts from its Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River in 2022, from the normal 4 million to 4.5 million.  CDFW’s post stated in part:

“Chinook salmon returns to the American River declined significantly during California’s last drought,” said Jason Julienne, supervisor for CDFW’s North Central Region fish hatcheries. “We’re using those observations and that experience to get ahead of any population declines this time around by increasing production to help sustain this important salmon run.”

In a June 2020 post, I summarized annual hatchery releases of American River fall-run salmon smolts for years 1991-2019.  I suggested that the long-term declines in escapement were also due to reductions in overall smolt releases and to an increasing proportion of river releases as opposed to Bay releases in drier years (Figure 2).

In 2020, a total of 4.44 million smolts were released, with 2.63 million released to the river and 1.81 million to the Bay (Figure 3).  The 1.6-million smolts released in-river in May 2020 were subject to low flows in the river and the Delta and to high water temperatures (Figures 4 and 5).  As a consequence, I would expect 2022 escapement to follow the general downward trend.

In drought year 2021, all 4 million smolts were trucked and released to the Bay.  However, I still expect 2023 escapement to be reduced as a consequence of the generally poor survival of smolts released to the Bay in drier years with low Delta outflow.1

Until flow conditions in the river and Bay in dry years improve, a 12.5% increase in hatchery smolt releases is unlikely to improve escapement to recent historical levels.

Figure 1. American River fall-run escapement to river and hatchery 1975-2020.

Figure 2. American River hatchery smolt releases to Bay and river 1991-2019.

Figure 3. American River hatchery smolt releases to Bay and river in 2020.

Figure 4. American River streamflow and water temperature in spring 2020.

Figure 5. Sacramento River water temperature below the mouth of the American River near Freeport in spring 2020.