Winnemem Wintu Tribe and Partners Release Eyed Winter Chinook Eggs into Upper McCloud River

By Dan Bacher | 

For nearly eight decades, winter-run Chinook salmon have been absent from the Winnemem Waywacket (McCloud River) since Shasta Dam was completed in the 1940s, inundating the cultural sites of Winnemem Wintu and preventing the salmon for reaching their headwaters to spawn as they have done since time immemorial.

In a historic event on July 11, 2022, 20,000 eyed salmon eggs were gently placed in an incubation tank — a remote incubation system beside the stream at a historical village site of the Winnemem Wintu people.

The introduction of winter run eggs from Livingston Stone Hatchery was a collaboration between the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Now listed under the California and federal Endangered Species Acts, the winter Chinook is a run of fish found only in the McCloud and Sacramento River watershed that ascend the river from mid-December to March. They are one of four runs of salmon that once flourished in the millions in the Sacramento River, McCloud River and their tributaries before the construction of Shasta and other dams.

In 2021, only an estimated 2.6 percent of juvenile winter run salmon survived low, warm water conditions below Keswick Dam, according to a CDFW report.

“We are asking that the river receive these eggs,” said Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk, in explaining the native words, songs and ceremony immediately preceding the eggs’ return to the McCloud River. “We are asking that the old-time ways continue inland that they grow in that way. We put down that song so they have a fighting chance.”

“Our prayer here goes along with Run4Salmon we’ve been doing for salmon for seven years.” Chief Sisk stated. ”That prayer came down for the mountain for us to wake people up and bring them back on the trail for the salmon return. Because they’re ultimately responsible for the conditions of our waters.”

Chief Sisk emphasized the key role that the salmon play in bringing nutrients from the ocean to the river and mountain ecosystem. 

“They’re the only ones that bring the nutrients from ocean up to  these mountains, up to these bears, eagles, wolves and coyotes and everything that lived including the people that were here,” said Sisk. “They all do their jobs. They all die after they spawn. And if we didn’t do our jobs here, there would be a river of dead fish. And we all work together in that cycle of life.”

“The salmon haven’t been above the dam since the dam was installed and today is a historic moment for salmon,” said Niria Alicia, Run for Salmon organizer. “Because salmon are going to be dropped for first time in over 80 years. And it important that we receive them  in a good way so we are  here to pray for them. We’re here for ceremony for them. We know  it’s not ideal, it’s not New Zealand salmon yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

During the July 11 ceremony, Winnemem Wintu women and girls carried the salmon eggs around the sacred fire to provide them with their best chance at surviving. The Tribe sang their “H’up Chonas” song, communicating the Tribe’s spiritual commitment to resist and fight for their salmon, as the women and girls carried the eggs.

According to the Tribe, this historic event is one step in the journey that was launched in 2010, when Winnemem tribal members went to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to sing and dance for their salmon relatives that have been waiting for 100 years to return to their home waters.

Over 100 years, winter Chinook eggs were shipped from the federal fish hatchery on the McCloud River to the Rakaira and other rivers in New Zealand. Those fish, the original strain of winter run fish, now thriving in those rivers, has been extirpated from the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. The Maori Nation and the New Zealand government have both volunteered to return the original strain of winter-run Chinook salmon to the McCloud River.

It is the Winnemem’s prayer that federal and state agencies will follow through with their stated support for the Winnemem’s goal of bringing their Chinook relatives home from half way around the world in New Zealand.

On Monday, CDFW, NOAA and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe collaborated in the installation of a Remote Incubation System (RIS), into which personnel from Livingston Stone Hatchery — assisted by Winnemem and other children—placed 20,000 “winter run” eyed salmon eggs. After several weeks, when the developing fry have dropped their egg sacs. they will swim out of the Remote Ecosystem into the MxCloud River.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, the CDFW), NOAA) Fisheries and the USFWS celebrated the return of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs to the McCloud River upstream of Shasta Reservoir for the first time since the construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1940s.

After collecting approximately 20,000 fertilized winter-run Chinook salmon eggs from USFWS’ Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Redding, the partners drove them more than three hours over 80 miles to the Ah-Di-Na Campground within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on the banks of the McCloud River.

The eggs were placed into specialized incubators alongside the McCloud River’s cold waters where the species once spawned.

Another 30,000 eggs will be transferred to the incubators in the McCloud River in early August. Both cohorts will be released into the river as fry.

State and federal leaders say the historic return of winter-run Chinook salmon eggs to the mountains upstream of Shasta Reservoir is an “urgent response to reduce the extinction risk during a third year of severe drought. It is not a species reintroduction program.”

“The drought action, however, is expected to inform future long-term recovery and reintroduction efforts as biologists learn how the species uses its historical habitat,” according to a statement from the CDFW. “Once the eggs hatch later this summer, salmon fry will swim into the McCloud River for the first time since construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940s blocked the migration of adult salmon back to these same mountain waters. Rotary screw traps in the river will collect the salmon fry, which will then be transported downstream of Shasta Dam and released to the Sacramento River to migrate to the Pacific Ocean.”

The return of winter-run Chinook salmon eggs to the McCloud River was accompanied by a tribal celebration by the Winnemem Wintu, which has long advocated for the return of salmon to their ancestral homeland.

Staff from CDFW and tribal representatives will camp alongside the incubators and monitor the eggs and the young salmon as they develop and disperse into the river over the next few months.

CDFW, NOAA Fisheries and USFWS staff commented on the significance of the reintroduction of the eggs to the river in a press statement.

“While we have carried out a number of different actions to see this iconic species through another year of drought, there’s no denying that Monday’s work just feels huge,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “It’s historic and healing and incredibly hopeful for the future. We are so grateful for the wisdom and guidance the Winnemem Wintu Tribe provided about their ancestral lands and waters, which helped shape this effort. We’re proud to help deliver these eggs and this species home to the McCloud River.”

Scott Rumsey, acting regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region, said, “Given the drought and the harsh reality of climate change, these endangered fish face the longest odds they ever have. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe has long sought to return them to the McCloud. This crucial collaboration with the tribe, state, and other agencies, now reflects more support for the species than ever before and is finally taking an important step toward making that happen.”

Paul Souza, regional director of the USFWS’ Pacific Southwest Region, said, “We know the impacts of drought can have devastating impacts on some of our most precious aquatic species, but it is heartening to know that when we come together with our partners, we are capable of quickly accomplishing lifesaving measures like this for winter-run Chinook. We are proud to work with such dedicated federal, state and tribal partners to help safeguard this endangered fish against drought through the implementation of creative solutions.”  

The Winnemem’s plan to bring back winter Chinookk eggs from New Zealand, where they were planted and are now thriving in the Rakaira and other rivers, is under discussion, and they have received some verbal support from agency managers, but road block issues are being raised (such as concerns about “pathogens“), and there is still no MOU in place to outline a specific plan, according to the Tribe.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe envisions building a fishway connecting Dry Creek, which flows into Shasta Lake now, and Cow Creek, that flows into the Sacramento River, so the adult fish can make it upriver to spawn and the juvenile fish can make the long journey from the mountains to the ocean. 

The endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon are particularly important among California’s salmon runs because they exhibit a life-history strategy found nowhere else on the West Coast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These Chinook salmon are unique in that they spawn during the summer months when air temperatures usually approach their warmest.

The Sacramento River system is home to the only winter-run Chinook salmon in the world. This unique population is cut off from its historical spawning and rearing habitat, and faces many other threats, but efforts are underway to help it recover.

As a result, winter-run Chinook salmon require stream reaches with cold water sources that will protect their incubating eggs from the warm ambient conditions. Because of this need for cold water during the summer, winter-run Chinook salmon historically occurred only in rivers and creeks fed by cold water springs, such as the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, and Battle Creek.

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