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Tribe, State, and Federal Partners Join To Return Endangered Salmon to Historic Habitat

May 03, 2023

Three-way collaboration to restore Chinook salmon to the mountains north of Redding, California.

Three people signing documents on a table by a river bank From left, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe; Charlton "Chuck" Bonham, Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; and Cathy Marcinkevage, Assistant Regional Administrator in the Central California Office of NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region; sign agreements creating a framework for restoring endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to their original habitat above Shasta Reservoir on May 1. Photo: Jessica Abbe

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe have signed agreements to restore Chinook salmon to the mountains north of Redding, California.

The agreements support a joint effort to return Chinook salmon to their original spawning areas in cold mountain rivers now blocked by Shasta Reservoir in northern California. The goal is ecological and cultural restoration which will one day renew fishing opportunities for the tribe that depended on the once-plentiful salmon for food and much more.

“By working together to share our knowledge and expertise, we can expand and accelerate our efforts to restore and recover Chinook salmon,” said Cathy Marcinkevage, Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. “This species is in crisis, and I am confident that we can together drive solutions that will truly make a difference.”

The Tribe signed a co-management agreement with CDFW and a co-stewardship agreement with NOAA Fisheries, reflecting the way the two agencies describe accords with tribes. This three-way collaboration is a historic achievement that advances our common goals.

The agreements call for the agencies to include the Tribe in decisions for salmon that have great meaning for the Winnemem Wintu. Three years of drought have taken a toll on endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which migrate and spawn in the lower Sacramento River. The river can warm to temperatures that are lethal to their eggs.

Aerial view of the McCloud River with Mount Shasta in the background
The McCloud River begins on the flanks of Mount Shasta and was one of the last strongholds of California Chinook salmon as mining and other development devastated salmon runs in other Northern California rivers.

During the summer of 2022, the tribe joined state and federal agencies in pursuing urgent measures to improve the odds for winter-run Chinook salmon. This included transporting 40,000 fertilized eggs to the cold McCloud River above Shasta Reservoir. Many hatched, swimming down the river for the first time since Shasta Dam was completed in the early 1940s. The Tribe joined agency staff in collecting the juvenile fish before they reached the reservoir, which is populated with predators. Biologists then moved them downstream around the reservoir to continue to the ocean.

The agreements will advance recovery plans for the crucial species.

“This is an historic agreement that moves us one step closer to our goal of returning wild salmon from New Zealand and creating a volitional passage around Shasta Dam,” said Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk. “It’s incredible that we can now share this vision with CDFW and NOAA. We have a long way to go, but there are now more good people working on it.”

“This is an historic day and it’s long overdue,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “We can’t change the wrongs that were done in the past, but we have an obligation in the present to make it better. With this agreement we are bringing life back to the McCloud River.”

Juvenile salmon placed on a ruler, measuring around 65mm
Juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon (top) that reared in the McCloud River water last summer grew larger than other winter-run juveniles that grew in the main Sacramento River. Larger fish have better odds of surviving their migration to the ocean and returning to the river as adults to spawn the next generation. Photo: Eric Holmes, University of California, Davis

The new agreements call for the Tribe to contribute traditional ecological knowledge. They will share insight as the tribe once did for Livingston Stone, who established the nation’s first Chinook salmon hatchery on the McCloud in 1872. The Tribe's oral history and Stone’s reports from the time recount the tribe’s deep cultural connection to winter-run Chinook salmon, as well as practical knowledge of the species.

The agencies agreed to make the Tribe a “co-equal decision-maker.” CDFW has awarded a $2.3 million grant to support the Tribe’s participation in salmon measures. Agencies also agreed to evaluate the potential reintroduction of Chinook salmon that were moved from the McCloud River in California to streams in New Zealand more than 100 years ago. These fish have strong cultural and spiritual significance for the tribe.

In 2022, the California Department of Water Resources tested an experimental system for collecting juvenile winter-run salmon that hatch in the McCloud River as part of a larger-scale future reintroduction program. The department plans continued testing late this year. Recovery plans for the species call for an ongoing program of annual transplants of winter-run Chinook salmon to spawning habitat in the McCloud River, where they will be safer from the rising temperatures of climate change.

NOAA Fisheries recognizes highly-endangered winter-run Chinook salmon as a “Species in the Spotlight,” in need of focused recovery actions. Returning the species to the McCloud River is a central element of the 2021–2025 Action Plan for the species, which is also listed under California’s state endangered species act.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on February 20, 2024