A quarter-million tiny, young salmon, each just a few inches long, are scheduled to be released into Bodega Bay this spring, providing a potential bright spot amid ongoing hardship for the North Coast fishing fleet.
The hatchery-reared fish will be trucked directly to Sonoma County from the state-run Mokelumne River hatchery near Lodi as part of a continuing effort to augment California’s declining Chinook salmon stocks, which took an especially hard hit during the prolonged drought.
Modeled after similar programs elsewhere on the California coast, the operation involves the use of a custom-made net pen to be positioned in the water, dockside, at Spud Point Marina in order to receive the smolts. The pen will provide a place for the young fish to adjust after their tanker ride and to acclimate to salt water before they head toward open water with the outgoing tide a few hours after their arrival.
The key advantage of such an effort is it allows the young fish to bypass the obstacles they would otherwise face getting downstream to the ocean, past unscreened water pumps and other dangers in the Sacramento River/San Joaquin River system, enhancing their chance of surviving to adulthood.
“The delta pumps just eat all those fish coming down, the little smolts coming down the river, and this makes sure that they make it northward to Bodega Bay, as a start,” said veteran Petaluma angler Victor Gonella, founder of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a sport and commercial industry group that put the project together.
“This is just really good news for the fishermen in Bodega, the businesses in Bodega, anybody who loves salmon,” Gonella said. “We’re all hopeful that it will continue for years to come as we continue this process.”
Each year, California hatcheries raise 2 to 4 million Chinook salmon to increase the number of the species in the ocean, where they can boost stocks available to sport and commercial fishermen. State hatcheries also raise fish to mitigate the damage done by dams and other manmade actions that have cut off access to spawning grounds in rivers.
The Bodega smolts are genetically linked to Central Valley fall run Chinook, or king salmon, that make up most of the commercial fishery.
The agency takes applications each year for the salmon release projects, with good success in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and elsewhere. In those cases, the young fish typically stay in pens for several days before their release, so that they imprint somewhat on the bay waters around them, increasing the likelihood they will return to the vicinity when they reach reproductive stage at 2 to 4 years old. In the wild, the young fish imprint on freshwater tributaries that draw them back for spawning.
The Sonoma Coast release will be a special case, however. It’s will be the farthest north that trucked smolts have been set free and will require additional scrutiny to ensure they do not stray into protected habitat or spawning grounds for local salmon runs and spawn with or displace those fish, Shaffer said.
“We’re responsible for ensuring you can both enhance the fishery and maintain habitat and natural populations,” he said, “so there’s an added concern when you go north of the (San Francisco) Bay.”
The Bodega Bay smolts will be acclimated for hours, compared to days, in part to diminish the chances they will try, years later, to migrate into local streams for spawning, he said.
Though a large percentage of the young salmon will succumb to natural predation, the transport and release process nonetheless allows for a much higher survival rate than otherwise would be the case, said Marc Gorelnik, chairman of the Coastside Fishing Club, which has organized annual releases of Chinook smolts into Half Moon Bay since 2012.
“I can tell you these coastal releases are far more productive when it comes to providing fish for the fishery, and when I say the fishery, both sport and commercial,” he said.
Bodega Bay’s debut release is scheduled to take place some time in late May. It will be two or three years, when the fish come of age, before there can be any realistic attempt to gauge its success or analyze results in terms of where the fish end up, once released, organizers said.
The fish will be tagged with wire-coated devices that will allow wildlife officials to recognize them among any salmon that are harvested or found dead. The tags are also the main cost of the program, roughly $25,000.
The Golden Gate Salmon Association and the Fisherman’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, largely through proceeds from the Fisherman’s Festival, will put up about $10,000 each. About $5,000 more is to come from fees levied on commercial fishermen and charter boats.
“We hope this leads to more fish for everyone in the future,” said longtime Bodega Bay fisherman Stan Carpenter.
Any step to improve the chance of a strong future harvest is welcome, said local skippers, whose fortunes have fallen year by year because of dwindling salmon stocks and two successive Dungeness crab seasons delayed by algae-related toxins.
Last year’s salmon run was “probably the worst in history,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Fisherman’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.
The forecast for this season, set for release March 1, isn’t expected to be much better, given recent high mortality among migrating fish trying to navigate drought-ravaged waterways.
“You feel like you’re doing something, anyway,” Carpenter said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the annual salmon abundance forecast. It is March 1.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.