Sunday February 10, 2008

Modesto Bee

February 10, 2008

Most people don’t think about salmon until it arrives on their plates properly prepared, having been delivered by truck. Few realize that life starts in Stanislaus County for many salmon; that hundreds of thousands of them swim through Modesto and Ceres on their way to the ocean. And until the price of that salmon on their plates goes through the roof, they won’t care that disaster has struck.

The number of Chinook salmon returning to Central Valley rivers this year was disastrously low. It was especially dire around here. The state Department of Fish and Game says only 113 fish returned to the Tuolumne from October through December. The Stanislaus River had 312; the Merced, 402. The entire San Joaquin River basin had only 1,158 spawners, says FishBio, a consulting firm in Oakdale.

Other counts were marginally higher. Tim Ford, a biologist for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, estimated 180 fish returned to the Tuolumne, a figure he called “disturbing.”

The Sacramento River was also bad, with 90,000 spawners; last year, there were 277,000; in 2001 there were nearly 1 million. Those who count salmon in Oregon and Washington report fewer fish there, too.

On our three rivers, the situation is neither acceptable nor sustainable.

“(The Tuolumne) used to support hundreds of thousands of fish, and now we’re down to 180,” said Patrick Koepele, a biologist with the Tuolumne River Trust. “That’s pretty sad.”

Dean Marston, a biologist with the state Fish and Game, was more specific: “Terrible would be the word.”

There are fishermen who recall seeing salmon filling the Tuolumne from bank to bank, brushing against each other as they swished aside gravel to make their nests and lay their eggs.

What remains is a tiny fraction of those numbers. No one suggests San Joaquin salmon are beyond hope, but everyone realizes we are on the brink of catastrophe.

Unfortunately, no one knows how to keep us from going over the edge.

Irrigation districts, environmental organizations and the state and federal governments have made enormous efforts to improve habitat. More than $10 million has been spent on the Tuolumne River. Thousands of tons of gravel have been put into traditional spawning beds so salmon can build proper redds, or nests. Easements have been secured so that floods can provide better forage for juvenile fish on their way to the ocean. Water has been released from Don Pedro Reservoir to help spawning fish return and juvenile fish get out.

Firms such as FishBio and Stillwater Sciences have been studying the rivers and salmon for more than a decade. Their studies consistently have shown that if rivers have more water when salmon are spawning and migrating to the ocean, more fish will return to the rivers two or three years later. Higher flows provide more oxygen, lower water temperatures and help migrating young fish avoid predators such as striped bass.

But the connection between high water and more fish has been broken. In 2005, the river was roaring, with flows of 1,013 cubic feet per second in the first week of February. (By comparison, last week’s average flow was 167 cfs.) With such high flows in 2005, some of the fish should have made it out then returned to spawn as 3-year-olds.

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