Hatchery Salmon Releases Scheduled in San Francisco Bay Due to Poor River Conditions

CDFW Photo: Tanker trucks carrying salmon smolts from CDFW’s Central Valley hatcheries line up at Fort Baker near the Golden Gate Bridge in preparation to release the fish, bypassing Central Valley rivers where predation, low water, warm temperatures and other factors can limit survival and their ability to reach the ocean. | 

By Dan Bacher | @DanBacher

San Francisco -- Millions of juvenile Chinook salmon from state fish hatcheries are getting a truck ride to saltwater this spring to increase their survival, triggered by the projected poor conditions in the Sacramento River and other Central Valley rivers this year.

Responding to requests by the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GSSA), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced Wednesday that it is trucking all of its hatchery juvenile salmon (smolts) to release sites in and around San Francisco Bay this year. This will minimize drought-related losses exacerbated by the draining of Central Valley Project and State Water Project reservoirs to supply irrigation water to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and Southern California water agencies in recent years.

Over 16.8 million young Chinook salmon from four Central Valley hatcheries — the Feather River, Nimbus, Mokelumne and Merced facilities — will be trucked to release sites around the San Pablo and San Francisco bays and in Half Moon and Monterey bays, according to the CDFW. The Coastside Fishing Club hosts a salmon pen release project in Half Moon Bay, while the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout project operates a salmon pen release project in Moss Landing.

The CDFW said It will take approximately 146 individual truck loads traveling more than 30,000 miles between mid-April and early June to deliver all the fish.  

John McManus, President of the GSSA, said the decision by the CDFW follows requests from the Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA) and meetings with CDFW urging the state to act.

On March 25, the Golden State Salmon Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources and the Coastside Fishing Club sent a letter to CDFW Director Chuck Bonham requesting emergency action in response to the highly restricted 2021 salmon season.

“We represent California’s diverse salmon fishing industry, including commercial and recreational fishing and related businesses,” the letter stated. “We are writing to request that you take urgent action to maximize Central Valley hatchery survival in response to the highly restricted 2021 salmon season and developing drought conditions. Fortunately, this can be done quickly and hopefully fairly easily, by moving salmon scheduled for in-basin releases at Feather River and Nimbus to the Bay and using release points west of the current Vallejo sites. We would also support an experimental night time release into deep waters adjacent to the Conoco Phillips facility on the outgoing tide.” 

“In addition to the low count of adults in the ocean, we face dangerous conditions in the rivers this year as a result of drought and poor water management. Out migrating juvenile salmon this spring are likely to encounter dangerously warm water temperatures, low turbidity, and a general lack of spring outflow. Spawning adults in the fall are likely to encounter warm water both in the migratory corridor and on the spawning beds. The 2021 season is a sign of what we could see in the next few years unless additional actions are taken by the Department to maximize survival of this year’s hatchery juveniles,” the groups wrote,

In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has also decided to truck roughly 950,000 baby salmon from the Coleman Hatchery near Redding to the West Bay, according to the GSSA.    

“Although it won’t help this year’s restricted season, the trucking should produce a large number of 20” jacks by next year and allow a fishing season in 2023,” reported McManus. “This will be especially valuable considering water temperature forecasts now show that water temperatures will likely be lethal for spawning salmon by fall unless the State acts to require added temperature protections.”  

Also, after GSSA’s request, the Department will use some new Bay release sites west of the regular release sites at Mare Island near Vallejo, noted McManus. 

GSSA said the need to truck hatchery fish in part stems from the “failure of state water managers to better balance water allocation to protect salmon and the environment.” While trucking hatchery fish will save them, the fish born in the wild are likely to die.  

“Salmon fishermen and women are grateful for the trucking of hatchery salmon, but we mourn the loss of the state’s wild salmon runs caused by the failure of government to better manage finite freshwater sources in the Central Valley,” said McManus.  “We hope the state will act to avoid the massive fish kills we saw in 2014 and 2015.” 

McManus said there was “massive mortality” of winter-run, spring-run and fall-run chinook salmon during the last drought in 2014-2015. For example, endangered winter run below Shasta dam suffered from a loss of 77% in 2014 and 85% in 2015.

GSSA asked the department to use release sites further west in San Francisco because the group said it the easiest and cheapest, way to maximize survival and returns of hatchery fish. “West Bay release sites basically double the number of hatchery fish that survive to adulthood, providing equivalent benefits of building several new hatcheries,” explained McManus. 

Prior to CDFW’s decision to truck to the west Bay, McManus said the GSSA staff did advance scouting, initiated and shared contacts of local land owners, and assembled and shared maps and photos with CDFW.

McManus said the decision to truck the fish will add another three to four million fish that will contribute significantly to the fishery in the next few years.

A press release from the CDFW said the agency “is taking the proactive measure of trucking millions of hatchery-raised juvenile Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon this spring to San Pablo Bay, San Francisco Bay and seaside net pens due to projected poor river conditions in the Central Valley. The massive trucking operation is designed to ensure the highest level of survival for the young salmon on their hazardous journey to the Pacific Ocean.”

“CDFW is utilizing lessons learned from the past 15 or more years of salmon releases and the last drought to maximize release success,” said Jason Julienne, North Central Region Hatchery Supervisor. “Trucking young salmon to downstream release sites has proven to be one of the  best ways to increase survival to the ocean during dry conditions.”

Julienne said the millions of young salmon will be transported, bypassing 50 to more than 100 miles of poor river conditions where estimated losses have been significant during dry years. The massive trucking operation will transport around 20 percent more salmon around the Central Valley rivers and Delta than in typical water years.  

The CDFW said the adaptive management strategy “was triggered by CDFW biologists’ and salmon hatchery managers’ evaluation of current and projected river conditions, anticipating historically low flows and elevated temperatures. Part of the strategy involves selection of new release sites and rotating between release sites to minimize learned behaviors from predators.  Releases will take place at night and during the day, utilizing both direct release and net pen acclimation techniques, to help maximize survival rates.”

It is important to note that in 8 out of the past 10 years, the combined water exports from the state and federal water projects have exceeded the 3 million acre feet annual export figure that many believe to be the maximum amount of water that can be exported from the Delta without destroying the ecosystem and harming fish species. In every water year except two, 2014 and 2015, the state and federal projects exported well over 3 million acre feet of water from the Delta.

The 3 million acre feet cap of water exports in all years is a key recommendation of the Environmental Water Caucus (EWC) updated solutions plan titled "A Sustainable Water Plan for California."

In fact, 2011 was the all-time record export year with 6.67 million acre-feet of water diverted from the Delta, followed closely behind by the 6.46 million acre-feet exported in 2017. 2018 saw 4.62 million acre feet exported from the Delta, while 2019 saw 5.3 million acre-feet exported and 2020 saw 3.65 million acre-feet exported.

Below is the chart with the annual exports and the 15-year average All of the figures are in million acre-feet:


Annual Export

15 Year Average































2020                                                                                3.655797327                                                          4.518263237                 

“If you don’t conserve enough water to maintain carryover storage so that fish can go downriver in a drought,” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, then the CDFW has to truck the fish downriver to the bay so that fish are able to survive.   

The weather and water outlook for this year is very grim indeed. “Across much of California, the 2020-2021 ‘wet season’ was actually drier than any year during the extreme 2013-2016 drought, and in many cases close to 1976-1977,” said Daniel Swain, climate scientist, in a tweet. “But, as I keep mentioning, this drought is much warmer than the 1970s event event due to climate change.”

Salmon populations on the Sacramento River have also declined dramatically over the decades — and climate change will only exacerbate an already bad situation. Sacramento River mainstem winter run, spring run and fall run Chinook salmon escapements (1970-1974 v. 2015-2019) have declined 91.0, 99.9 and 79.7 percent, respectively, according to Jennings.

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