Kings are returning to the Stanislaus River and humans are invited to celebrate, plus plans for coho and the Yuba River are discussed in this latest NorCalFishing News & Notes:
Stanislaus River Salmon Fest celebrates King comeback
By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat
The number of salmon running up the Stanislaus River during the fall has increased in recent years, studies show.
To celebrate, the Stanislaus River Salmon Festival will be held Nov. 3 in Knights Ferry near the salmon spawning beds and the Tuolumne River Trust will organize paddling trips over spawning redds on the first two weekends of November.
It appears those events will celebrate a robust year for the anadromous fish, which recently saw their populations along local rivers decline dramatically before coming back.
Since then, populations in the San Joaquin River basin have been trending upward, said Doug Demko, a biologist who runs FISHBIO, a group of research scientists, engineers and technicians who specialize in counting, tracking and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world.
This year’s fall run has already had 2,179 Chinook salmon pass a weir set up near Riverbank on the Stanislaus River, Demko said. According to FISHBIO statistics, counts at the weir didn’t even reach 1,000 in 2007 through 2009. Headquartered in Oakdale, the company tracks the salmon population along the Stanislaus River for the Oakdale Irrigation District, Tri-Dam Project and South San Joaquin Irrigation District.
Demko said on Wednesday that if the run continues at this year-to-date rate, it will be the strongest fall salmon run on the beleaguered river in a long while.
The fall run of San Joaquin tributaries like the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Mokelumne usually begins in September or October and continues through December. The peak migration usually occurs in November.
Experts believe reasons vary for the steady decline. According to Fish and Game, water diversions, over-fishing in the ocean, pollution in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and dams along the state’s rivers are all cited as causes.
State and federal legislators have made moves since the 1990s to try and improve the populations.
Rhonda Reed, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the recent bump probably is due to multiple reasons — the wet spring in 2010, in increase in early arriving salmon last year, increased flows on rivers like the Stanislaus overall and even natural cycles.
And while experts say more salmon can mean an improved waterway, Reed pointed out there’s value outside of the water as well.
“There is something just charismatic about salmon,” she said. “When you’re standing on the bridge in Knights Ferry in November and watching them do their thing, it’s pretty amazing.”
Small streams being employed for coho recovery
.SAN GREGORIO -- This flat, arrow-straight section of San Gregorio Creek near La Honda looks perfectly healthy to the untrained eye, but biologist Jon Ambrose sees there is something amiss.
The streambed is too plain -- too tidy. There are no fallen trees or logs in the water, which has slowed to a late September near-trickle.
Though a lack of debris may sound like a good thing, it's disastrous for an ancient resident of these waters who recently disappeared: the coho salmon. The species relies on the wood to create deep, cold pools of water where they can escape the heat and hide from predators.
"You should not be able to drive a truck down a creek that's in a redwood forest," said Ambrose of the National Marine Fisheries Service, looking out over the creek. "And right now you could."
The lack of downed trees in San Gregorio and other creeks -- the result of well-meaning landowners either cleaning up or trying to prevent flooding -- is one of many reasons for the slow extirpation of the Central California Coast coho salmon. The spawning runs of these oceangoing fish helped sustain human life in the Bay Area for thousands of years, but their numbers dropped sharply with the arrival of Western settlers. Their population has since collapsed from about 56,000 in the 1960s to perhaps a few thousand today.
To combat this decline, the National Marine Fisheries Service spent five years compiling an encyclopedic recovery plan for the
Central Coast coho. The fish is an evolutionarily significant unit, or regional subset, of the Pacific coho, which is found as far north as the Bering Sea. Smaller than its relative the Chinook salmon, the coho avoids big river systems in favor of creeks. Once abundant in streams from northern Mendocino County to Santa Cruz, the Central Coast coho was listed as endangered in 2005 and is now on the verge of extinction.
The plan, a roughly 2,000-page tome that lays out specific recommendations for 28 watersheds on the Central Coast, was released in September. Now comes the hard part: making it happen. The strategy, which would cost $1.5 billion to pull off, is purely advisory and comes with no extra funding.
Sam Herzberg, a San Mateo County parks planner and director of a group of Central Coast officials focused on coho and steelhead trout recovery, supports the plan but is skeptical whether it will be effective.
"It's got no mandates and no money to implement any of (the recommendations)," he said.
Ambrose, an author of the plan, said it will nonetheless serve two crucial functions. First, it will funnel existing sources of money as well as the energy of government and private entities toward the most effective recovery projects. Second, the plan will help educate private landowners about how to manage their portions of creeks where coho have historically been found.
The plan argues there are societal and economic benefits to reviving the coho, which has long served a vital role in human culture on the Pacific Coast. Restoration projects create jobs as well as benefit other fish species such as steelhead trout, the plan's authors contend. Creating sustainable coho and steelhead populations would give a boost to fishermen and enhance coastal tourism.
For those who work to save the coho, the plan is not only a blueprint for recovery but also a long-awaited call to action. Kellyx Nelson, executive director of the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District, hopes it captures the public imagination the way a famed campaign to save California condors did after the bird's population dropped to just 22 in the 1980s.
"The coho needs a California condor moment," Nelson said.
The recovery plan identifies nine creeks south of the Golden Gate that are essential to pulling the coho out of the extinction vortex: three in San Mateo County and six in Santa Cruz County.
The status of coho in the San Mateo County creeks is especially dire, according to Ambrose. Monitoring has been spotty, he said, but Pescadero Creek is believed to have none. San Gregorio Creek hasn't had any since 2008, and the 2010 and 2011 spawning runs in Gazos Creek failed.
The causes of the Central Coast collapses are varied but include:
· Low water levels and high water temperatures during dry months.
· Loss of vegetation, which provides shade and food in the form of insects.
· Man-made structures such as culverts and artificial stream banks.
Along San Gregorio Creek, for instance, 98 percent of the land is in private hands. Brussels sprouts farmers and homeowners along the creek have the right to take water from it using metered pumps. Portions of state Highway 84 that eroded have been reinforced with stark rock walls. The road has destabilized slopes along the creek, causing sediment to wash downhill during winter storms.
Here and elsewhere, a simple thing like removing wood from the stream, repeated hundreds of times over many years, has serious consequences. Fallen trees and logs push water down into the streambed, scouring out deep pools for juvenile salmon and sorting gravel by size, creating ideal spawning beds elsewhere in the creek. The wood also provides sanctuary during winter storms so juvenile salmon, which spend a year in the stream where they hatch before heading out to the Pacific Ocean, are not swept out before they are big enough to survive.
Yuba Dam project draws scrutiny
River lovers, fishery biologists and conservation groups that have worked for years to improve salmon habitat on the lower Yuba River are troubled by a Canadian energy company’s proposal to build a “fish-friendly” hydro-power project adjacent to a dam that many want to see come down.
Archon Energy Ltd. has identified 50 stakeholders to its proposal for a clean-energy facility at Daguerre Point Dam in Yuba County.
On Oct. 22, during the first public meeting for the project, many raised concerns about the project’s timeline, unknown effects to irrigation diversions, recreation and endangered fish and pointed to a need for more environmental studies.
Nearly two-dozen people in support of the Nevada City-based advocacy group the South Yuba River Citizens League filled Yuba County’s Supervisors Chambers to hear details of the project and voice their opposition to it.
An application filed in July by Archon Energy Ltd. with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is incomplete in determining risks to three anadromous fish species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, say fishery biologists.
“Yes, there are risks, and those will need to be evaluated. The details of the project are somewhat lacking. Our concerns are for anadromous fish species — Spring Run Chinook (salmon), (Central Valley) Steelhead and green sturgeon, also Fall Chinook,” important to commercial and sport fisheries, said Gary Sprague, fish biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.
In August, SYRCL, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothill Conservancy and American Whitewater sent a joint letter to FERC requesting the agency deny the use of a traditional licensing process for the Archon Project, saying the fast-track process is inappropriate for such a complex and “controversial” project.
“I am confident that Archon Energy understands that SYRCL will not support a new hydropower project on the Lower Yuba River that would set back efforts to restore wild salmon … SYRCL looks forward to working closely with Archon Energy and expect them to be diligent in performing all necessary studies before moving ahead,” said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick.
Other agencies sent responses of their own, including, the Yuba County Water Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the California Department of Fish and Game.
SYRCL says the project conflicts with a February 2012 Biological Opinion issued by NMFS that found Daguerre Point Dam likely endangers three listed species of endangered fish.
In the document, NMFS ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, to improve fish passage for migrating salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. Proponents of dam removal worry a hydro-electric project will entrench the century-old Daguerre Point Dam for 50 years.
“This is actually where the dams can come down,” said Jessie Raeder, president of SalmonAid, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
She called Daguerre a “ghost dam.” The low-head dam was first built over a century ago by the California Debris Commission to collect and dredge mine tailings and control erratic flooding caused by historic hydraulic mining but no longer serves that purpose.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires the Army Corps of Engineers to consider a no-dam option as part of its analysis of fish passage improvements.
Of 13 rivers identified in the state, the Yuba River stands the best chance of returning salmon to ancestral spawning grounds, Raeder said.
Archon President Paul Grist says the project is a chance to improve fisheries.
During a presentation, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Ablett says his company’s project will improve the Yuba River’s fishery by providing better fish passage, local jobs and enough clean energy to power all the homes in Marysville and Linda. He repeatedly invited cooperation with stakeholders.
Despite Archon’s open-armed approach, fishermen remained skeptical of the project that they say has the potential to further fish decline already decimated by Gold Rush hydraulic mining and a century’s worth of dams and diversions.
“It’s getting down to the point where (the fishery) may not repair itself naturally,” said Frank Rinella of Sierra Guide Service, a professional guide on the Lower Yuba for the past 20 years. He says the existing fish ladders at Daguerre are “inadequate” and is concerned about creating more hazards for fish already in trouble.
“Then there’s no coming back,” he said.
“There used to be a lot more fish on the river 20 years ago than there are now,” said fisherman Raymond Binner.
It’s normal for fish populations to fluctuate year after year as records of the past four years show. But when numbers fall in the hundreds, like they did for the Spring Run Chinook last year, it becomes a low number to keep genetically viable, said Sprague. Times are precarious for Fall Run Chinook populations, as well, most notably in 2007 when runs crashed and forced fishing closures up and down the west coast.
In 2011, preliminary counts of Spring Run Chinook show only about 100 returned to the Yuba.
In recent years, there has been much talk of fish collection and transport by truck as an alternative to dam removal. Collection on the north side of the river is preferred for truck access, but Sprague said a hydro-power project built on the south side will create a challenge.
Archon’s proposed “non-traditional” hydro-power project also presents unknown impacts to green sturgeon. Among the largest and most ancient of all cartilaginous fish, sturgeon can grow as long as six feet. They are already impeded from passing beyond Daguerre Dam.
Spawning populations for green sturgeon for the Central Valley are estimated to be as low as 100 fish, according to SYRCL river scientist Gary Reedy. It is unclear if the new project would allow fish passage for sturgeon.
“There is only one known spawning area (Sacramento River below Red Bluff dam), and the National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that the risk of extinction will remain high until another spawning population is re-established. They have noted the lower Yuba River above Daguerre Point Dam as one of the most promising possibilities for recovery,” Reedy said.
It is unclear how salmon “fry” and “smolts” moving downstream to the ocean and upstream migrating fish will be protected from injury caused by disorientation, smacking into concrete walls and predatory fish.
After studying numerous sites and working closely with turbine manufacturers, this will be the first time Archon Energy has installed such a design anywhere, Grist said.
As many as 200 similar models are used in Europe, said Grist, but critics argue the river dynamics are different there and so are the fish.
In the U.S., screw pumps are found most often in wastewater treatment plants, Ablett said. The closest example resembling what Archon is proposing on the Lower Yuba was used in a slightly different fashion on the Sacramento River near Red Bluff.
According to Archon’s website, the project at Daguerre is one of five proposed existing dam sites on California rivers that also include the Kern River, the Kings River, the Merced River and the Feather River.
Keywords: Yuba River, Stanislaus River, salmon