Coleman Hatchery takes giant step to restore Sac River salmon

GSSA president John McManus takes tissue samples for DNA identification as part of a joint project with USFWS to produce and track an additional two million fall run salmon for release early next year. 

A Fish and Wildlife service tech uses tweezers to handle the tissue sample for cataloguing. 

Tissue samples the size of small round dots are carefully catalogued along with info about the adult fish they came from.  The DNA from each will be analyzed and included in a computer database.  Tissue samples will be collected from adult fish that return to the upper Sacramento River three years from now to see which match the DNA samples taken this year.   This will allow the success of the project to be measured.   

GSSA was on hand as some of the millions of eggs were taken and fertilized to produce the additional two million baby salmon for this project.  GSSA is grateful to staff and leadership at the USFWS for agreeing to doing the heavy lifting needed to make this project happen.  

After the eggs are fertilized, they get a quick rinse before being taken to the facility where they’ll incubate for 60 to 90 days before hatching.  The baby fish will likely be released when they’re about two inches, which is smaller than regular hatchery fish.  Releasing them smaller allows earlier release which will hopefully coincide with higher winter storm runoff in the Sacramento River.  Release into high winter flows is expected to boost survival, especially compared to regular hatchery late spring releases when low water and lots of predators spell trouble.  

The hope is that in three years, many more adult salmon will return to the upper Sacramento River watershed for the benefit of everyone.  This should also mitigate for losses to hot river temperatures suffered this year.  

After a request from GSSA, and several meetings with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regional director Paul Souza and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) regional administrator Barry Thom, the FWS has started a program to put two million more fall run salmon into the upper Sacramento Basin. The FWS Coleman Hatchery will hatch out the additional two million baby salmon this fall and winter and release them early next year into the upper Sacramento River.  This will restart what many considered a very successful program that added millions of fish to the river until it was discontinued in the 1990’s. It will also likely go a long ways towards compensating for losses caused by the drought. Those who fish in the Sacramento River should see many of these fish return as adults in 2024.

The fish will be too small at the time of their release to be clipped and tagged with conventional coded wire tags so a novel technology is being used to track them.  Tissue samples are being taken from adult parent salmon which will be compared to tissue taken three years from now when the offspring return as adults.  On a recent trip to Coleman hatchery GSSA helped take some of these tissue samples. 

This parent based, or DNA tagging, advances the use of this technology in California salmon hatcheries.  GSSA hopes that success of this part of the program could lead to it eventually being more widely employed at other fall run hatcheries.  This could allow much earlier release of hatchery salmon at times in the winter when high flows are present in the Sacramento River, boosting survival.  

Current tagging requires the baby salmon to reach at least three to four inches before they can be mass tagged in coded wire tagging machines.  This in turn requires most hatchery managers to rear the salmon at least into late March, if not April, to achieve the needed size. In many years this is too late to capitalize on high winter and spring flows in the river, needed to safely deliver the baby salmon past predators and to the Delta, Bay and ocean.  

A key question researchers hope to answer is what level of survival these salmon will experience and where they return to as adults.  GSSA is grateful to the USFWS and Coleman Hatchery for doing this work, which will add many more fish to our drought stressed rivers.

A key question researchers hope to answer is what level of survival these salmon will experience and where they return to as adults.  GSSA is grateful to the USFWS and Coleman Hatchery for doing this work, which will add many more fish to our drought stressed rivers.

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