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Chinook salmon count way down

Last month, far fewer Chinook salmon spawned in the lower stretches of the Yuba River, duplicating a three-year trend of declining fish populations across Northern California.

The lower Yuba boasts one of the last remaining wild salmon runs in the Central Valley. In September the California Department of Fish and Game counted only 54 fall run Chinook salmon at the fish ladders at Daguerre Point Dam on the lower Yuba River, compared with 909 during the same period last year, 1,671 two years ago and 3,842 in 2003.

“We are concerned, but as scientists, we must remain objective. We simply don’t have enough long-term data to judge this,” said James Navicki, an environmental scientist with Fish and Game who studies fish on the lower watershed.



Beyond the Yuba River, in other parts of the Central Valley and the north state, Chinook salmon are returning slower than usual, said Scott Barrow of Fish and Game.

On the Feather River, numbers are one-third of what they usually are this time of year, Barrow said.




Many guides on the Sacramento River, the state’s largest river, have given up on salmon and are now fishing for other species, said Denis Peirce, a Northern California fisherman for 25 years who called this season’s chinook run “absolutely horrible.”

“It is the worst year in recent memory. The salmon didn’t come back,” Peirce said.

On the Klamath River, sport anglers are several thousand fish below quota, but steelhead have flooded the tributary earlier and in larger numbers than anticipated, said Sara Borok, a fisheries biologist for the coastal region.

“It’s a weird year. Up and down the coast, the fish are late,” Borok said.

Fish returns typically fluctuate wildly from year to year, and the last three years could have been more robust than normal, Navicki said.

In the past four years, state biologists have monitored fish spawning in the lower river with a computer system installed at the dam. Fish carcasses collected from the shore are also counted, Navicki said.

The reason for the low returns hasn’t been pinpointed, and scientists still don’t know whether the phenomenon occurring from the Central Valley to the North Coast is a fluke or a serious problem. Answers could be years away, said Steve Lindley an ecologist for the National Marine Fisheries Services, Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

“I’m not terribly worried by one year,” Lindley said.

A number of factors could have contributed to the low returns including unusual ocean “upwelling” in 2004 that led to marine mammal and sea bird deaths, a dry year, sun spot activity, diminished food sources in the Sacramento Delta, habitat disturbed by hydraulic mining more than a century ago and more recently, dredging operations.

“It really remains to be fully explained what is going on,” said Gary Reedy, river science director for the South Yuba River Citizens League.

Reedy called this year’s return “catastrophic,” because it has the potential to put the threatened spring-run Chinook at risk of extinction and will impact runs in three to four years when juveniles born this season return to spawn.

At 6 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 24, SYRCL will hold a town hall meeting with fisheries agencies, conservation groups, water managers and local tribes at the Miners Foundry in Nevada City to address the status of the Yuba River’s salmon.

In 2006, the group filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Yuba County Water Agency for alleged failures to protect and recover the Spring run Chinook Salmon, Steelhead trout and green sturgeon.


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