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GUEST OPINION: A problem with salmon hatcheries

Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 5:48 p.m.

Fishermen and fishery officials will meet in Santa Rosa on Feb. 28 to hear about the 2012 salmon returns. We'll learn how many salmon returned to spawn in California rivers and streams, including how many were young fish, a primary factor used to predict the 2013 number of salmon.

We'll also learn about how many tagged hatchery fish returned and how faithful they were to the hatchery of their origin versus how many got lost and returned to a stream other than the one in which they were born.

We expect, as usual, to hear we caught a lot of fish raised at the Feather River hatchery. We'll probably hear that few of the salmon we caught off the coast came from the Nimbus hatchery on the American River.

Why the discrepancy? Many speculate it's because the Feather River hatchery trucks its baby fish around the delta and releases them in the relatively safe bay waters beyond the vacuum pull of the delta pumps. Water diverted and pumped from the delta upsets natural currents and pulls juvenile salmon off their natural migration route to their death in the delta.

The American River hatchery refuses to truck its juvenile salmon, instead insisting on releasing them into the river. This forces these fish to migrate down the Sacramento River and run the gauntlet of the delta on their way to sea. Most die in the delta.

Why pay for a hatchery where all the offspring die and never return? As long as the delta pumps are wiping out wildlife, why not at least make good on our investment in the hatcheries and get the young fish safely to sea? Like Nimbus, the Coleman hatchery far up the Sacramento River near Redding also refuses to truck its fish around the delta for safe release. It also releases its fish to the Sacramento near the hatchery and sees very few returns.

Baby fish trucked around the delta don't benefit from imprinting of the smell of the different parts of the river that naturally migrating fish get. This smell imprinting helps the salmon find their way home two and three years later. Without the imprinting there are large numbers of lost or “straying” fish that wind up spawning in waters other than those where they were born. This is considered a big enough problem by some hatchery managers to keep them from trucking their fish.

Salmon are big business here on the North Coast. In addition to the salmon fishing industry, families and school classes come from far and wide to watch salmon in our local rivers and streams. But we can't take our salmon for granted. The fresh water they need to spawn and rear in is coveted by cities, towns and farm fields.

Salmon fishermen need to be heard to ensure enough water is left for salmon reproduction. They also need to prod unproductive hatcheries to contribute their fair share to the fish we catch off our coast.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association is taking a lead role in fighting for water and for positive hatchery reforms because so far no one is leaning on the hatchery managers to adopt standard, productive practices.

Soon we'll fish again, and for that we're thankful. But the future prospects are only as bright as the willingness of salmon advocates to stand up for measures needed to keep our salmon runs healthy. Only this will ensure our natural heritage is healthy and alive and we will have salmon jobs for future generation.

Victor Gonella is president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. He lives in Petaluma.

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