Baby salmon might get a ride down to the ocean this spring. We’re not sure who would be more confused by that — them or us.
The salmon fingerlings will be stumped because, well, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The recently hatched fish imprint on the stream where they are born and get swept downriver by high spring flows, ending up down in the ocean. They return to the place where they are born three or four years later, spawn and die. If the salmon are born in the hatchery, that’s where they return almost all of the time.
There’s a concern that trucking the fish down to San Francisco Bay will confuse nature’s process, but fishery managers say they’re considering that option for millions of little fish. Otherwise, low river flows could mean the juvenile salmon never make it out into the ocean — they’ll either get hung up in fresh water, or they’ll be easy prey in the placid water for predators like striped bass and pike minnow to gorge on a salmon feast.
State and federal fishery managers say the limo ride — OK, it’s more like a tanker truck than a limo — would cost a lot of money, but the young salmon are worth it.
And that’s where we get confused. We hear entirely too often from other fisheries people that hatchery salmon are expendable. Some scientists, groups, biologists and even judges say hatcheries should be all but eliminated because hatcheries create dumb, genetically stunted salmon. They’d prefer a river with only wild salmon.
So would we. But the fact is, once the state and federal government started building dams in the last century and cutting off salmon spawning grounds, the hatcheries became an artificial substitute for the now-impossible real thing — a place for salmon to go and perpetuate the species before dying.
We are stuck with hatcheries, but hatchery fish are certainly better than the option of barren rivers.
That’s why the idea of trucking baby salmon from hatcheries on the Feather River in Oroville and Battle Creek near Anderson down to San Francisco Bay makes a lot of sense in an extremely low-water year. It’s hard enough for the young fish to make it to the ocean even in a normal water year. They need every advantage they can get.
But, as fisheries managers know, they need to be smart about it too. Years ago, in an attempt to improve return rates for adult fish, young salmon were trucked down to the San Francisco Bay to give them a head start out to the ocean. Fish that were trucked down and released would be shocked by the change in water temperature and clarity. Some would die or get eaten.
Fisheries managers then tried cages or barges in the delta waters to help the young fish get acclimated. But predators caught on. When the young salmon were released, hungry predators — fish, birds, otters — were hanging out near the cage, waiting eagerly for feeding time. It was a massacre.
That and the expense are the reasons the state stopped doing it.
This may be a good time to start doing it again, at least for one season, until river flows return to normal. Nobody should complain about the cost, and here’s why: If salmon populations dwindle because of the drought, an endangered fish population would result in more water restrictions for farmers and cities. We all have an interest in doing whatever we can for the salmon to get through this drought.