Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Endangered salmon will swim in California river for first time in 80 years


LOS ANGELES — California’s Chinook salmon haven’t been able to reach the McCloud River since 1942, when the construction of Shasta Dam blocked the fish from swimming upstream and sealed off their spawning areas in the cold mountain waters near Mount Shasta.

After 80 years, endangered winter-run chinook are about to swim in the river once again.

State and federal wildlife officials collected about 20,000 winter-run salmon eggs from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Redding and drove them for three hours to a campground on the banks of the McCloud River.

Members of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who have long sought to return salmon to the river where their ancestors lived, held a ceremony as the eggs arrived in a cooler.

“This is history for California that we’ve done this,” said Caleen Sisk, the tribe’s chief and spiritual leader. “It’s a real blessing.”

During the ceremony, Sisk and others sang as two women carried the cooler with the salmon eggs, leading a procession around a fire as children followed.

“We’re asking that the river receive these eggs,” Sisk said. “And we’ve put down that song so that they have a fighting chance.”

For the Winnemem Wintu, salmon are central to their cultural and spiritual traditions. They call the river Winnemem Waywacket, and it’s the heart of their traditional homeland, which the tribe lost when the reservoir was filled.

“Whatever happens to the salmon happens to us,” Sisk said.

She said the tribe offered prayers for the salmon to survive. And the women and children welcomed the eggs, she said, to give them a “female mothering kind of vibration.”

Two biologists lugged the cooler down a rocky slope to the riverbank and set it down next to specialized incubator tanks, where water flowing from the river was circulating through the system.

Taylor Lipscomb, the hatchery’s manager, reached into the cooler and lifted out a cup filled with orange salmon eggs, then handed it to one of the children.

Each child participated, lowering a cupful into the water and tipping it until the eggs tumbled out and settled on a metal screen.

As Sisk carried a cupful to the tank, she said she was “talking to the eggs about their ancestors,” the salmon that swam there long ago.

“And just trying to give them the courage and support,” she said, “that we’re here for them and we’re going to do the best that we can.”

Winter-run chinook salmon are increasingly struggling to survive as global warming intensifies drought conditions and extreme heat.

Last year, the water flowing from Shasta Dam got so warm that the Sacramento River turned lethal for winter-run salmon eggs. Most of the eggs and young fish died. State biologists estimated that only 2.56 percent of the eggs hatched and survived to swim downriver, one of the lowest estimates of “egg-to-fry” survival yet.

State and federal officials have been working on plans to reintroduce the endangered fish to the McCloud River. They say effort this summer is not yet a full-fledged reintroduction, but rather an urgent response to help the salmon during a third year of severe drought.

The idea is that by moving some eggs to cooler waters, they will have better odds of surviving this summer.

Once the eggs hatch, the tiny salmon, called fry, will make their way out of the incubator system through a pipe and swim into the river.

Another shipment of 20,000 eggs will be delivered to the incubators on the riverbank in early August.

Biologists plan to use traps in the river to collect the juvenile salmon and truck them downstream of the dam. Once released into the Sacramento River, the fish can migrate to the Pacific Ocean.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe is taking part in the effort along with officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.