It was a sight that would leave any fisherman licking his chops: A bevy of sturdy-looking salmon swimming in a small enclosure at the base of Keswick Dam — cut off from their intended route up the Sacramento River near Redding, California. In other words, pretty much sitting ducks.
Suddenly the ground rumbled with a mechanical whining as the water began to empty out of the pen — forcing the fish into another enclosure which began to climb the height of the dam aboard a giant elevator — a James Bond-like escape.
This peculiar fish elevator was part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hatchery program at the upper end of the Sacramento River — aimed at preventing federally threatened winter-run Chinook salmon from plunging further into population despair.
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"What we’re trying to do is save a run of fish," said John Reuth, assistant manager of the Livingston Stone National Fish hatchery.
The Keswick Dam was outfitted with special fish ladders, an elevator and traps all intended to catch salmon and place them in the hatchery program to help re-populate the river.
At the top of their elevator ride, the container full of fish swung out toward the road and was emptied into a waiting container truck. From there the fish were driven about 15 miles to Shasta Dam where the Livingston Stone hatchery lies just below the dam’s fortress-like face.
"Right now it’s sort of important for us to give them a little jump start basically," Reuth said plunging a net into a holding container and producing a dense, squirming cluster of fingerling size fish. "These are the one run of salmon that everybody’s concerned about with."
As the tanker truck of fish pulled into the hatchery yard, Reuth and other hatchery managers scaled its tank, gathering around as one worker climbed inside and began pulling out adult salmon one by one.
A few of the fish were identified as having been raised at the hatchery — but in the interim had swam down the Sacramento River, out the Golden Gate Bridge to spend three years in the ocean before making the return trip.
The targets for Reuth and his team are naturally born fish to add to the hatchery program — to improve the genetic stock and create a heartier traveler. With a recent survey predicting only a 3 percent survival rate of the current year winter-run Chinook, likely the result of the prolonged drought, Reuth said the situation had become grave.
"If we could get into another bad year like next year since salmon are on a three year cycle," Reuth said, "it could mean the demise of the salmon."
Back inside the truck tank, biologists attached tags to the fish and clipped a genetic sample from each tail fin. The DNA samples would later help identify winter-run fish.
"It’s there as a plan B in case the natural stocks of winter run disappear," John McManus, director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association said of the hatchery program. "They’ll have the genetics and living fish and eggs on hand at the hatchery to keep the run alive until natural components can be reintroduced or come back."
Over the past couple years, the federal government trucked 20 million salmon smolts from Livingstone Stone and nearby Coleman Fish Hatchery down river for release in the Delta — to improve their chances of survival. Two weeks ago, the team released another 400,000 fish into the Sacramento River.
Although commercial fishermen are allowed to only catch Fall-run salmon during their season, regulators partially base fishing quotas on the number of winter-run salmon present. Regulators have already warned fishermen to expect a limited season which normally opens in May, based on the limited number of Winter-run chinook.
Reuth said there were only an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 adult winter run salmon in the Sacramento River. Back in the 1980s, the number had dropped to about 190.
From inside the tank, the hatchery worker fished-out a large natural born salmon — the size that would bestow bragging rights on any fisherman lucky enough to nab one. The fish was placed into another truck to be hauled to the Coleman hatchery.
Reuth took in the giant fish with the calm of someone who had witnessed similar fish for more than a decade — whose efforts have sent millions of fish on their trek out to the ocean.
"Today in the truck we saw a few fish come back that I raised myself here at the hatchery," Reuth said. "I raised them from an egg to a juvenile — they went out to the ocean for three years. And are now swimming back to spawn again."