Let's go fishing!
Written by Keith Pfeifer, Conservation Director
The Nigiri Project-Rice Fields and Salmon
The Yolo Bypass is an engineered seasonal floodplain of approximately 60,000 acres that was developed in the 1930s as a “natural” diversion for water from the Sacramento River to reduce the risk of flooding during the rainy season. The flow of water into the Bypass is controlled by the Fremont Weir north of Sacramento. The Yolo Bypass mimics the historic natural winter floodplains of the central valley before dams, water diversions and levees caused a channelization and urbanization of the Sacramento River. These natural floodplains were essential winter aquatic habitat for migratory birds, wildlife and fishes, particularly the anadromous Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. During the dry season the Yolo Bypass provides a fertile substrate to grow rice, other crops and forage for grazing animals. Today, only five percent of the Central Valley’s original floodplain habitat remains for the region’s anadromous fish populations.
In 2012, a wetlands habitat improvement project, aptly named the Nigiri Project, was started at Knaggs Ranch in the Yolo Bypass, northeast of Woodland. Nigiri is a type of sushi with a slice of fish atop a compact wedge of rice. The study property consisted of up to 2,500 potential acres of land that could be winter floodplain habitat for salmon and farmed for rice during the summer. In this initial study during the winter of 2012-2013, 10,000 salmon fry were obtained from the Orville Hatchery and transported to the study site. At the field site, 300 fish were implanted with electronic tags, thereby allowing these study fish to be tracked after being placed into enclosed pens or swim freely in the study field. Individual fish were initially measured and weighed. Every two weeks, 50 free-swimming fish and 50-penned fish were re-captured, weighed and measured. After six weeks, all study and non-study fish were released into the Yolo Bypass to begin their journey to the ocean. These preliminary studies showed that the salmon fry can gain significant weight, (e.g. five fold increase for the free swimming fish) during a short period of time when introduced into a food rich environment. These larger, healthier juvenile salmon have better odds of avoiding predation during their migration down the Sacramento River and through the Sacramento Delta-San Francisco Bay estuary.
A subsequent three-week study in 2016 compared growth rates of juvenile Chinook salmon held in underwater pens on flooded rice fields to a sub- group of salmon held in pens floating in an agricultural canal and another group enclosed in floating pens in the Sacramento River. The results of this brief study confirmed that flood plain fish grow much faster than those fish raised in either the wetland canals or the main Sacramento River channel. The floodplain salmon grew faster and were 7 times larger than their river counterparts (see photo).
The fast moving Sacramento River does not contain sufficient food or habitat for the fish to maintain their strength and endurance to avoid predators and other environmental hazards. The natural process of slowing down and spreading out shallow water across the floodplain creates ideal conditions for an abundant food web. After the rice is harvested, water is pumped into the fields promoting the decay of the rice stubble, thereby creating a carbon source. Sunlight promotes the growth of algae, a food source for small invertebrates, such as water-fleas (Daphnia), which in turn are eaten by salmon fry and other small fish, such as smelt.
More recently, Sacramento Valley rice farmers have formed a partnership with U. C. Davis Center for Watershed Science, Cal Trout and water agencies to “grow” food (invertebrates) for salmon. The project is called “Fish Food on Floodplain Farm Fields”. Historically, rice farmers have flooded their fields after the Fall harvest to provide habitat for migratory birds. Once the water entered the rice field it was allowed to remain and over time soak into the earth. Now, the farmers have developed a process that mimics the natural floodplains of the Sacramento River. Water is allowed to slowly move through the rice field, promoting the growth of the invertebrates for the salmon. After 3-4 weeks, the “bug-rich” water is pumped back into the Sacramento River via a series of canals. The goal is to provide the young salmon in the Sacramento River with a source of food to ensure their survival during their migration. Currently, the project has 12 farmers using about 50,000 acres in the Sacramento area, producing approximately 70 pounds of “bug-food”
per acre. The project partners hope to expand their production to include more rice farms and utilize more of the 500,000 acres of managed floodplains in the Sacramento Valley. With the numbers of the winter-run Chinook salmon steadily declining, this iconic species needs all the help it can get to survive.
The Transfer of Federal Public Lands to Individual States
The Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 stipulated that public lands be managed by our federal government, specifically by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are all part of the Interior Department. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for our national forests and wilderness areas. The history of public land, primarily in the Western United States, goes back to the purchase of the Louisiana Territory lands from France. Thomas Jefferson understood that this “investment” was for the betterment of the American people. Our public lands are a gift to all citizens who enjoy outdoor recreation in some of the most beautiful settings in the world. As fishing enthusiasts, we have access to many streams, rivers and lakes in our national parks, national forests and wilderness areas.
There is currently a renewed concern about the concept of transferring control and management of federal public lands to the individual states in which these properties are located. The federal government presently manages and assumes financial responsibilities for more than 300 million public acres used for recreation, fisheries and wildlife conservation, mining, logging, cattle grazing, and oil and gas drilling. The federal government has a long history of issues with Western states over the management of public lands. For example, federal lands are not subject to state or local taxes, which limits an individual state to generate local revenue. Also, there may be federal environmental laws that can impact adjacent state or private properties.
The current debate over public land-transfer reflects similar issues during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s when Nevada filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the federal government in which Nevada claimed the rights to the Bureau of Land Management lands within its borders. In recent years there have been some limited, but determined, efforts by some Western states to transfer control of public lands from the federal government to individual states. In 2012, Utah passed legislation, the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act, to require the federal government to grant control of public lands back to the State of Utah within two years. In 2014 Utah initiated a “plan” of education, negotiation, legislation and litigation to obtain control of 31 million acres. In December 2015, the Utah Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands began the process of preparing a legal complaint that would be the basis for a lawsuit against the federal government.
Over the last two years, other Western states have approached “states rights legislation” in various ways with limited success. Arizona passed a bill similar to Utah’s 2012 legislation, but the Governor vetoed it. In New Mexico, a bill that would have created a study commission failed in part because of objections from conservationists and American Indian tribes. Wyoming has a task force that is currently studying legal avenues for land-transfers. In Colorado, a transfer-study bill died after opposition from conservationists and sportsmen convinced their representatives that this concept was “contrary to Colorado values of environmental protection and equal access to all the open spaces and natural areas“. Another important point made by the Colorado conservation groups was the significant cost obligations that would be tied to any public land transfer to the State.
Growing interest in this public lands transfer idea has also come from non-governmental groups, such as the American Lands Council, a non-profit organization based in Utah. Current council members include county commissioners, industry representatives (e.g. mining, cattle and energy), and the author of the 2012 Utah legislation, who serves as the Council’s president.
A key issue surrounding the transfer of public lands to the individual states is one of cost, i.e. who will pay for maintaining the services required for these lands? For example, costs of fighting wildfires alone could easily overwhelm the individual states. In 2012, the U.S. Forest in Idaho spent $169 million on fire suppression, which is more than three times Idaho’s law enforcement budget. The obvious answer to this cost of services question is that the public land would be sold by the state to generate revenue. For many years, private groups and industries have been interested in gaining access to public lands. These include mining, oil and gas, timber grazing, recreation and real estate development. National parks and wilderness areas would likely be off limits for these activities, but our national forest lands would be “fair game”. Remember in the 1960s when our “Magic Kingdom” folks at Disneyland wanted to develop a ski resort and highway system in the Mineral King Valley of Sequoia National Forest. They proposed the largest resort to date in California with 27 ski lifts; hotels and parking to accommodate a projected two million people a year. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Sierra Club, this development never happened, and Mineral King was eventually annexed into Sequoia National Park.
In California, we have a long legacy of public access to our coastal beaches, our rural waterways and forests. If you travel to other Western states, many rivers and streams have limited general access because the once public lands have been sold by the state to private real estate developers, or they are owned by industrial corporations. As advocates for access to public lands and clean waters to present a fly to a wild fish, let us all work to preserve our environmental heritage. Please remain informed and stay vigilant about the stealthy efforts of special interest groups that want to control our public recreational lands and limit your access or the future access of our descendants to our beautiful beaches, forests and streams.
Conservation Topics of Regional Interest
Klamath River Dams Removal Delayed
The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) was signed in April 2016 by California’s and Oregon’s governors, federal officials, tribal government leaders, environmental groups and Pacific Corp, the dam’s current owner. The KHSA was to be originally submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by July 2016, but this plan has been delayed until September 2016 because some “procedural issues” need to be addressed. The KHSA would remove four hydro-electrical dams, Copco 1, Copco 2, Iron Gate and J.C. Boyle, by 2020 in order to improve overall water quality and increase potential spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead. Also this year, a nonprofit corporation, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, was established to take ownership of the dams from Pacific Corp. This transfer of ownership also needs the approval of the FERC. Additionally, there are some other regulatory “hurdles” the KHSA must clear before it can be initiated. Water quality permits need to be obtained from both California and Oregon. Funding agreements for the KHSA need to be modified because the original proposal was written for congressional approval. This initial approval process finally failed in Congress in 2015 after five years of debate, and now the $450 million price tag for the dam removal will be shared between Pacific Corp’s ratepayers in California and Oregon ($200 million), and from California’s Proposition 1 water bond, which will contribute $250 million. Stay tuned for more drama because many members in the House of Representatives are still opposed to the KHSA and the removal of dams, in general.
A Salmon Fest without Salmon?
The Salmon Festival on the Northern California Coast has been an annual event for 54 years. This well attended event is hosted by the Yurok Tribe, the largest federally recognized tribe in California. The famous Chinook salmon lunch has been the highlight of this event. The fish are cooked in the traditional Yurok way over an open fire. This year the festival was held on Aug. 20th with one glaring omission….the salmon!
Yurok Tribal officials said that “dire” environmental conditions resulting in the loss of thousands of salmon prompted this decision. In 2014 and 2015 almost all juvenile Klamath River Chinook and coho salmon died from a deadly parasite, Ceratonova shasta (formerly Ceratomyxa shasta), which thrives in warm, slow-moving water. Poor water management of the Klamath River was the primary factor that contributed to the favorable conditions for this parasite; however, the prolonged California drought and high ambient temperatures were also likely factors that exacerbated the poor water quality. Tribal officials were forced to declare s state of emergency and seek federal aid because of this economic crisis on their reservation. The Yurok Tribe has also cancelled its own commercial fishing season this year. This annual salmon event draws thousands of visitors, but unfortunately, this year they had to substitute tri-tip and other fresh foods for the traditional open-fire salmon.
Stanislaus River Rainbow Trout in Decline
The Stanislaus River is home to one of the largest populations of rainbow trout in California’s central valley. However, a recent report indicates that that the population of these resident trout has suffered a precipitous decline during the ongoing drought. Every summer since 2009, the fisheries and environmental consulting company, FISHBIO, has conducted an annual fish count by snorkeling the river at various locations from Goodwin Dam to Oakdale. FISHBIO, dedicated to advancing the research, monitoring and conservation of fish around the world, has offices in Chico and Oakdale, as well as an international location in Laos.
Their 2015 survey showed that the trout population declined by 75%, from an annual average of 20,000 fish over the previous six years, to only 5,000 fish in 2015. Ambient water temperatures increased from 2014 to 2015, and 2016 temperatures are expected to also be very high. Their results showed that trout numbers tended to decline one year after a hot summer, indicating that there was likely a negative impact on reproductive capability. The average daily water temperature in the Stanislaus River reached 69 degrees Fahrenheit at Knights Ferry in August of 2015 and was the highest temperature recorded since 1998. Ideal temperatures for rainbow trout to thrive (i.e. to survive and spawn successfully) are between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. These higher stream temperatures were directly related to the low water levels (approximately 12% of capacity) and higher water temperatures in New Melones Reservoir upstream from Tulloch and Goodwin dams.
Generally, the fisheries management strategy of increasing water flows below dams can be helpful to the survival of resident rainbow trout and migratory steelhead and salmon. However, during prolonged periods of drought and higher ambient and water temperatures, managed flow increases have not been beneficial to the survival of the resident rainbow trout in the Stanislaus River. This year a significant amount of the cold water in New Melones was released in the spring to “assist” the salmon and steelhead to move towards the ocean. Apparently, this “water pulse” strategy was not very successful. Only a small fraction of salmon migrated with the cold-water pulse, while hardly any rainbow trout, as steelhead, left the river. The net result was that there was no cold water left for the resident rainbow trout during the summer. Adequate water flows and optimal water temperatures are essential to the survival of all fish species. However, trying to time the release of water below dams to coincide with the natural migration cycles for these anadromous species is nothing more than “regulatory roulette”.
With the annual FISHBIO snorkel survey about to begin on the Stanislaus River, there are obvious concerns about the long-term health of this fisheries.
What is Aquatic Biodiversity?
Aquatic biodiversity (i.e. biological diversity) is the term generally used to describe the variety of organisms, from plants to invertebrates to amphibians to fish that live in specific aquatic habitats. An aquatic ecosystem with an extensive biodiversity of species is an indication of the biological richness of that system. However, biodiversity is much more. It is the inherent genetic capability of these organisms to live in a variety of different habitats that are controlled by a variety of non-living elements, such as water quality, salinity, temperature, substrate and human factors. Aquatic ecosystems include streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and reservoirs, marshes, swamps, estuaries and oceans. The species found today in these variable aquatic habitats have evolved and adapted to many years of chemical and physical changes in their environment.
The United States ranks first worldwide in the number of species of freshwater mussels, crayfish, snails and invertebrates, including mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies and damselflies. We rank seventh in our diversity of fishes, most of which are found in the Southeastern rivers and streams.
One the most complex aquatic ecosystems, i.e. the most diverse habitats and the greatest biodiversity, is the coastal estuary. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is part of the largest coastal estuary on the Pacific coast. This estuary not only includes the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin River and the Delta, but also Suisun Bay, San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay, as well as other rivers, (e.g. the Napa River). It is a “border” ecosystem that links the vast biodiversity found in both the salt- and freshwater habitats. The “well-being” of all estuaries is dependent on the inflow of fresh river water. River water provides nutrients, not only to the Delta organisms, but also to the San Francisco Bay complex. This water also prevents the incursion of salt water up stream in the rivers. Periodic “freshets” during the rainy season and the annual Spring run-off from the snow pack are important physical factors to the timing of spawning and other migratory activities of anadromous fish, including salmon, steelhead, striped bass and shad. The current controversy over water diversions and fish survival in the Delta and adjacent rivers generally highlights the Delta smelt, since it is on the “endangered species list”, and its ultimate survival is very questionable. Chinook salmon and steelhead have also been adversely impacted by historically poor water management practices and, of course, by the recent drought. However, because of the vast diversity of habitats in this coastal estuary there are many other significant species of fish that are found in these waters, including striped bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, white crappie, black crappie, bluegill, common carp, tule perch, Sacramento pike-minnow, redear sunfish, American shad and sturgeon.
The Value of Biodiversity
Each species of plant and animal has a unique inherent genetic “library”, i.e. code, that may help them survive in changing environments. A good example of this biodiversity can be found in the evolution of the redband trout of the Great Basin, which covers approximately one-fifth of the western United States. The Northern Great Basin of south central Oregon and northeastern California has six geographically isolated basins, each one home to a unique species of native redband trout. These trout evolved from the coastal rainbow trout, which generally prefers a water temperature in the range 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, because of their genetic biodiversity, the Great Basin redband trout have been able to survive in a harsh, arid environment. Water flows in their small streams can fluctuate widely, and these species can tolerate temperatures that approach 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another interesting example of fish biodiversity can be found in the species Oncorhynchus mykiss (O. mykiss). The resident form, known as rainbow trout, stays in freshwater its entire life, while the anadromous form, the steelhead, spends its juvenile life in fresh water and its adult life in the northern Pacific Ocean before returning to its natal river to spawn. However, genetically, these fish are considered to be the same species. So why would some groups of these fish undertake such an arduous and potentially dangerous journey to the ocean?
For years, researchers have been unable to clearly identify the specific traits that will determine whether a given group of O. mykiss will exhibit an anadromous or stream residency life style. However, there is recent research suggesting that both genetic and environmental factors may influence their life history strategy. Resident populations of O. mykiss had a high “condition factor” based on their fat content suggesting that food availability was adequate and, therefore, the fish were able to survive without the need to migrate to the ocean, a potentially food-rich environment. On the other hand, there appears to be genetic differences in metabolism between anadromous and resident trout, with the anadromous fish having greater metabolic needs than residents. The higher metabolic rates and lower lipid storage in anadromous trout suggested a greater need to migrate. Also, there appears to be genetic differences between anadromous and resident trout for the gene related to the parr-smolt transformation. This physiological/biochemical transformation is critical for the migrating steelhead to move from fresh water (river), to brackish water (estuary), and eventually to salt water (ocean).
Environmental factors that appeared to influence life-history patters included water temperature, stream flow, abundance of food in the streams and marine survival. In general, stream residency was more predominant in watersheds with cooler temperatures, higher summer flows, adequate food availability and suitable spawning habitat for smaller females.
Certainly, more research is needed to find the key factors that determine why some rainbow trout remain in a fresh water environment and some decide to become steelhead and migrate to the Pacific Ocean. Along with the genetic and “normal” environmental factors that can impact this species, anthropogenic influences, such as hatchery stocking of rainbow trout, barrier dams and water diversion, can alter habitats and ultimately the geographic distribution of this species. What is clear, however, is that O. mykiss has evolved a unique example of aquatic biodiversity to insure the survival of its species.
The "New' Feinstein Water/Drought Bill (S-2533)
Last month Senator Diane Feinstein unveiled her third attempt in the last two years to address the water needs of California. Titled the "California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief", this bill tries to find some middle ground between environmental protection in the Delta and water distribution to the central valley. The bill was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on February 10, 2016.
Some of the long-term goals include: (1) Assistance to rural and disadvantaged drought-stricken communities through grants to stabilize their water supplies; (2) Funding water storage projects, such as Shasta Dam modification (i.e. increasing the height of Lake Shasta by 18 feet which will flood the lower sections of the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers), the Sites area west of Maxwell, and Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River; (3) Proposing 27 desalination projects throughout California; (4) Proposing 105 water recycling and reuse projects involving the Bureau of Reclamation (5) Assistance in the protection and recovery of fish populations, namely the endangered Chinook salmon and the steelhead.
This latter "goal" directs federal fish and wildlife agencies to develop and implement a pilot program, funded by local water districts, to protect these anadromous salmonids by removing non-native "predator" fish from the Stanislaus River. These non-native predators include striped bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and black bass. In other words, these sport fish populations are considered the primary reason for the current, rapid decline in the salmon and steelhead numbers. It is noteworthy that these Delta/Bay species have coexisted with the native salmonids for well over 100 years. While predation of juvenile salmonids by the non-native species certainly occurs, as it has for decades, it currently appears that this over simplistic conclusion was formulated by the supports of the various water districts that are using these non-native species as a scapegoat to further their goal of obtaining more Delta water. The past four years of drought has exacerbated the already severe conditions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and the Delta because too much water has been, and still is, diverted to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Interestingly, with the recent abundance of rain and run-off into our rivers, Senator Feinstein has proposed that we increase the volume of water being pumped out of the Delta to help the drought-stricken farmers. Apparently, she does not understand that these high, murky run-off flows are usually the norm and assist the recently hatched juvenile salmon in moving quickly and effectively through the Delta into San Francisco Bay and out through the Golden Gate, hopefully to return in 3 to 4 years. Senator Feinstein needs to understand that the Delta is not just a water super highway. It is a living ecosystem where the plants, invertebrates, fish, birds and wildlife have evolved and thrived because of the availability of clean, abundant water. Water is the answer, and always will be the answer for sustainable, healthy fish populations. Note: GovTrack.com stated that this bill has a 15% chance of getting out of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee and an 8% chance of ever being enacted into law.
New Zeland Mudsnails
Recently, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) staff has confirmed that the New Zealand (NZ) mudsnail has been found in the low-flow section of the Feather River in Butte County. DFW biologists are also sampling other bodies of water in that area, including Lake Oroville. In California, NZ mudsnails have been documented in several rivers, including the Owens, Klamath, Russian, Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, American and Sacramento. Ken Davis, CFFU member and noted aquatic entomologist/photographer, has recently reported finding this mud snail in the lower Yuba drainage. Putah Creek, west of Winters, has harbored this invasive species for many years. Once established in these waters, this relatively small (4-6 millimeters) snail can reproduce exponentially and affect the populations of aquatic insects, including mayflies, caddisflies and chironomids.
It is worth repeating here some of the equipment decontamination procedures recommended by the DFW: After leaving the water, inspect waders, boots, float tubes, boats and trailers for any visible snails. Remove any snails with a stiff brush and rinse if possible. After wading, freeze waders and boots overnight, or for at least 6 hours. Completely drying gear in direct sunlight between fishing trips is also an effective procedure to insure you don't transport this snail to another "clean" stream or lake.