Frequently Asked Questions on Experimental Chinook Salmon Populations in the McCloud and Upper Sacramento Rivers
NOAA Fisheries is adopting a final rule to authorize the reintroduction of Sacramento River (SR) winter-run and Central Valley (CV) spring-run Chinook salmon in the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers above Shasta Dam in California.
Why is it important to reintroduce salmon and/or steelhead into historical habitat?
California’s once abundant and signature salmon and steelhead runs have experienced severe declines. On July 22, 2014, NOAA Fisheries adopted a final Recovery Plan for Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and California Central Valley steelhead. CV spring-run Chinook salmon are believed to have once been the most abundant of the four salmon runs in the Central Valley. The Recovery Plan identifies that re-establishing populations above dams would aid in recovery of these species by increasing abundance and productivity, improving spatial structure and diversity, and reducing the risk of extinction. Reintroduction of CV spring-run Chinook salmon above Shasta Dam represents an opportunity to reconnect this species to valuable and relatively unimpaired habitat in the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers.
Who is participating in the reintroduction?
NOAA Fisheries is working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, and other non-governmental organizations to identify partners, evaluate likely reintroduction areas, and develop methods for a future reintroduction program.
How would these fish be physically reintroduced to habitat above Shasta Dam?
Keswick and Shasta Dams are major barriers between fish reaching their historical habitat in the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers. Fish passage methods are currently being evaluated by NOAA Fisheries, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. It is likely that the preliminary stages in a reintroduction effort will include the use of a “collection and transport” program to move these fish upstream and downstream around Keswick and Shasta Dams.
What are “rim dams” and has NOAA Fisheries considered dam removal as an option for fish passage?
Rim dams are the large dams at the base of most major river systems in the California Central Valley. These dams have had significant adverse impacts to California’s salmon and steelhead populations in the Central Valley by blocking access to 95% of their historical spawning and rearing habitats. However, these dams are integral to California’s water infrastructure, providing water storage, power, and flood control. Where feasible, NOAA Fisheries is evaluating opportunities to provide fish passage above some of these dams to ensure the long term viability of salmon and steelhead in the Central Valley.
Have collection and transport methods been used for salmon reintroductions elsewhere?
Yes. More information on fish passage projects on the West Coast can be found here: California Fish Passage: Frequently Asked Questions.
How would reintroduction of an ESA-listed species above Shasta Dam affect landowners?
SR winter-run Chinook salmon are listed as “endangered” and CV spring-run Chinook salmon are listed as “threatened” under the ESA. The ESA prohibits “take” of listed species, which includes most actions that could harm the species. However, NOAA Fisheries 2014 California CV Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan states that salmon recovery actions should include measures to minimize opposition by local communities. Under ESA section 10(j), NOAA Fisheries has authority, if certain requirements are met, to designate these reintroduced populations as “nonessential experimental populations.” This allows for the return of the species to watersheds while allowing lawful uses of the area to continue.
Chinook salmon and steelhead are also listed under the California ESA. Provisions under state law enacted in 2018 protect local communities from land-use restrictions related to reintroductions of ESA-listed species and provide consistency with future federal designations and regulations.
ESA Section 10(j) provides NOAA Fisheries with the authority to designate populations of listed species as “experimental.” This allows us to support reintroduction of listed species into historical but currently unoccupied habitats without adding new regulatory burdens on landowners. This proposed rule would allow landowners, water managers, recreational fishers, power producers and others to engage in lawful actions without being adversely impacted by the reintroduction of these fish to the waterways above Shasta Dam.
What is the status of the reintroduction and when is it expected to begin?
A firm timeline for the reintroduction of Chinook salmon into the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers has not been established. NOAA Fisheries, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe are working to identify the most appropriate methods to reintroduce these fish and subsequent necessary infrastructure to implement a successful program. A pilot transfer of SR winter-run eggs to the McCloud River in 2022 and again this year demonstrated an initial approach and indicated the species can and will survive and thrive in the cold-water environments they evolved with.
What were 2022 Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon “Urgent Actions”
To minimize the impacts of the continued drought on spring-run and SR winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River, NOAA Fisheries, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (fish agencies) identified a series of urgent actions to implement in 2022. These included incubating a portion of SR winter-run Chinook salmon eggs from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery along the McCloud River (McCloud action). The intent of the McCloud action is to decrease the risk facing winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River by increasing their range.
The purposes of the McCloud action are to: (1) provide an additional SR winter-run Chinook salmon egg incubation and rearing location to spread the risk of adverse impacts to early life stages caused by extreme drought; (2) collect information on the Remote-Site Incubator (RSI) system and rotary screw traps as a means to inform future SR winter-run Chinook salmon recovery actions on the McCloud River; and (3) study juvenile SR winter-run Chinook salmon growth, survival, and outmigration timing in their historical habitat to inform the long-term recovery planning.
NMFS, CDFW, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe housed SR winter-run chinook eggs in incubators on the banks of the McCloud River, well upstream of Shasta Reservoir. This was intended to guarantee cold water for the eggs and increase the likelihood of their survival. Approximately 40,000 eggs from the hatchery were incubated at a site on the McCloud River.
Once hatched a few weeks later, free swimming winter-run Chinook salmon were in the McCloud River for the first time in over 80 years. Hundreds of juvenile fish from those incubators were captured in the McCloud River downstream of the incubators and translocated around Shasta Reservoir to a release site in the upper Sacramento River to continue rearing and outmigrating. It’s anticipated that NMFS, CDFW, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe will continue moving SR winter-run Chinook salmon upstream of Shasta Dam in the future.