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California Salmon Are Getting Trucked To The Ocean — Because Their Waterways Have Dried Out
March 26, 2014
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Juvenile Salmon are emptied into an acclimation pen in the Sacramento River. They're being moved by truck due to the draught in California which has resulted in low water levels. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The draught in California, which is one of the worst to hit the state in decades, isn't just hurting local residents and anyone who enjoys fresh produce. It's also affecting the salmon. Wild salmon on the West Coast typically start spawning this time of year, which means making the epic trek to the Pacific Ocean through various rivers and streams. Only this year, the rivers are so dry, salmon can't swim up them. The not-so-obvious solution? Drive them where they need to go.

The California Fish and Wildlife Department is trucking 30 million Chinook salmon hundreds of miles from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff towards the Pacific, so that the fish can continue along their way. Yesterday morning the first trucks arrived at the Sacramento River near Rio Vista, each carrying about 180,000 young salmon. 

Normally, the salmon would swim from the hatchery up the Sacramento River on their own. 

"If we don't get any rain, later in the year the river may become too low, too slow and too clear," says Bob Clarke, fisheries program supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "So that the fish would face too warm temperatures and too much predation, and would ... all perish."

This isn't the first time such drastic measures have been taken when it comes to preserving salmon populations in California — just the first time it's being done on such a large scale. In 1991, California trucked salmon from the hatchery to the Sacramento River delta. But the fish were just dumped there and left to their own devices, which meant most were easily picked off by predators. Now, the team has learned from past mistakes and is taking care to integrate the young salmon into the river. They're being held in pens in the river until they adjust to the water temperature and conditions, and a quarter of them have been tagged for tracking to see if they come back several years from now. 

Here's a video from the Sacramento Bee newspaper of the salmon being unloaded in Rio Vista:

It will take about three or four years to know how this experiment worked, when it's time for the fish to follow their natural migratory path and return down the river to where they were hatched. 

Eventually, these fish may be large enough to be harvested in the Pacific Ocean. Salmon fishing is a $1.6-billion industry in California.

While these fish were born in a hatchery, they are not technically farmed — the purpose of the hatchery is to preserve fish populations, and the fish that get hatched there spend most of their lives in the wild. That said, salmon farming is a contentious issue on the West Coast, both in Canada and the United States. 

For more information on the topic, take a look at the BC Salmon Famers Association's website, and this indispensable series on the great fish farming debate from The Tyee


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