After long absence, endangered winter-run Chinook salmon return to restored Battle Creek

Photo of Jeff Freund scooping winter-run Chinook

Jeff Freund at Coleman National Fish Hatchery scoops winter-run Chinook salmon on March 2 before they were trucked to Battle Creek later that morning. Approximately 29,000 salmon were released into the North Fork of Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River where they once thrived. The fish are from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery captive broodstock program. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

By Steve Martarano
March 28, 2018

Robert Barker, a fish culturist at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery, had just helped complete something historic and he knew it, spontaneously raising his arms in touchdown-like fashion.

Photo of culturists expressing joy after releaseing Chinook salmon

Fish culturist Robert Barker expresses the joy of many after the first 29,000 winter-run Chinook salmon were released into Battle Creek on March 2, while fellow worker Frank Becnel looks on. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“I was thinking “yeaaaa! We did it!” Barker said.

Barker’s enthusiasm was shared by many. He was directing the release hoses that had just helped reintroduce 29,000 Sacramento River endangered winter-run Chinook salmon into a restored section of the Battle Creek tributary on the upper Sacramento River for the first time since the 1990s.

The juveniles released the morning of March 2 were the first group from the approximately 215,000 fish that were the result of a captive broodstock program at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The release, which has received national attention, reached a major milestone reached after years of rearing the fish and its listing as an endangered species under both federal and state law.

The project was a multi-agency effort to plan and restore the Battle Creek salmon and steelhead habitat, marking a major step forward toward the species recovery.

Photo of Brad Carter beginning to release juvenile Chinook salmon into the water.

Brad Carter, of Coleman National Fish Hatchery, begins releasing approximately 29,000 endangered winter-run juvenile Chinook salmon from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery captive broodstock program into Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River on March 2. Credit: Laura Mahoney/USFWS

“We’re calling this project the ‘Battle Creek winter-run jump start,’” said Jim Smith, project leader for the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office. “We felt these additional fish could help bolster the winter-run population and be a potential catalyst in their recovery.”

Battle Creek flows through Shasta and Tehama counties and is the location of the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Program, comprised of the resource managers from the California Department Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, NOAA Fisheries, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, who all worked for years on the program.

The partner agencies considered the additional broodstock and eventual releases as a key opportunity to expand the current range of the imperiled fish.

After that first group was released into the North Fork of Battle Creek at Wildcat Bridge near Manton, California, much-needed wet weather conditions and flows ensued, and the remaining 185,000 fish followed, with about 92,000 going out from the raceways at Coleman on March 14, followed by another 67,000 on March 16.

Battle Creek at Wildcat Bridge near Manton, California. Approximately 29,000 endangered winter-run juvenile Chinook salmon were released into the North Fork of Battle Creek  March 2, with the remaining 185,000 released by the end of the month. “Each effort we make takes us a step closer to returning more of these iconic fish to our state,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife director, Charlton H. Bonham. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

The remaining 26,000 are expected to be released before the end of March, once they reached the required size needed to endure the tough conditions in Battle Creek.

“We switched gears a little but the conditions have been perfect for release,” said Brett Galyean, Coleman’s hatchery manager, breathing a big sigh of relief.

Photo of Brad Carter checks on Chinook salmon where they are housed before release

Hatchery worker Brad Carter checks out the raceways on March 2 at Coleman National Fish Hatchery where 215,000 winter-run Chinook salmon were raised. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

The road to reestablishing the fish in Battle Creek has been long. The broodstock program began in 1992 to address the collapse of winter-run Chinook salmon abundance in the Sacramento River throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Because the winter-run Chinook salmon population rebounded in the early 2000’s, the captive broodstock program was suspended.

Photo of Brett, Robert, and jeff discuss the days release

“We switched gears a little but the conditions have been perfect for release,” said Brett Galyean, Coleman’s hatchery manager, breathing a big sigh of relief, shown here with Coleman’s Robert Null (left) and Jeff Freund (right) at Wildcat Bridge on the North Fork of Battle Creek. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

However, with the loss of nearly the entire in-river juvenile population in 2014 and 2015 due to the extreme drought, the captive program at the hatchery was reinstituted. Approximately 1,000 fish are retained in the hatchery each year and raised to adults for breeding.

Salmon were hatched from broodstock adults last August at the Livingston Stone near Shasta Dam and trucked to Coleman, which is located on Battle Creek.

The fish were transferred quickly to Coleman so the growing juveniles could be imprinted in the waters of Battle Creek, helping them to find their way back to Coleman as adults in two and three years. About 230,000 eggs and fry were taken last summer from Livingston Stone to Coleman, Galyean said.

All of the juvenile salmon released were tagged and fin clipped prior to release, allowing resource managers to track their survival, growth and ocean distribution, as well as to detect them when they return to Battle Creek.

Photo of original sign that reads Shuttle for Survival

This is the original sign that was attached to the back of the fish transport truck that was used to move the first group of winter-run Chinook salmon juveniles from Coleman National Fish Hatchery to Bodega Bay Marine Lab, initiating the first winter run captive broodstock program in the mid-1990s. Credit: USFWS.

Meanwhile, the North Fork of Battle Creek is historic habitat for winter-run Chinook salmon that has received significant improvement as part of a long-term restoration project that included building fish dams and removing debris to increase flows.

“This is our attempt to ‘jump start’ the recovery of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon by expanding their range into a watershed that has undergone substantial habitat restoration over the past several years,” said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Central Valley Office. “We have been preparing a comprehensive plan for reintroduction of these fish and are excited that this opportunity to use the 2014 cohort of captive broodstock allows us to begin implementation this year.”

Another reason the Battle Creek releases were important: NOAA Fisheries considers winter-run Chinook salmon among eight marine species most at risk of extinction and part of the “Species in the Spotlight” initiative.

Photo of fertilized egges

Fertilized eggs collected from winter-run Chinook salmon that were part of the Battle Creek reintroduction captive broodstock program at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Laura Mahoney/USFWS

“Each step we take to re-establish these endangered winter run Chinook salmon is vital and helps us remember that in less than a century a run of salmon nearly a million strong has been reduced to thousands,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife director, Charlton H. Bonham. “Each effort we make takes us a step closer to returning more of these iconic fish to our state.”

With the Coleman complex, which includes Livingston Stone, playing a vital role in the broodstock and release program, Galyean said he appreciates the cooperation required to make the project a success.

“I want to thank everyone that has been involved with this project and acknowledge how far we have come since the initial planning meeting last summer on what to do with the captive brood stock at Livingston Stone,” Galyean said.

“In my opinion the jumpstart program is the only good thing that came out of the drought for north state salmon.”

Photo of Chinook salmon

A winter-run Chinook salmon in August 2017 that was part of the Battle Creek reintroduction captive broodstock program at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Collecting milt from a male winter-run Chinook salmon in August 2017 as part of the Battle Creek reintroduction captive broodstock program at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

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Steve Martarano

About the writer...

Steve Martarano is currently a public affairs specialist in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife Office located in Sacramento, California.

He has spent almost 30 years in both state and federal government public affairs after a 10-year stint at a daily newspaper in Sacramento.

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