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.”