Hatchery-Born Coho Salmon Are Helping Save the Species From Extinction in the Russian River

3 min
This coho smolt spent the first year of its like at a hatchery in Sonoma County. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Right now, thousands of 1-year-old coho salmon, or smolts, are making their way to the Pacific Ocean from the Russian River in Sonoma County.

But most of these endangered fish weren’t actually born in the river's tributaries. Instead, they were bred and raised at the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Geyserville.

At the beginning of this century, the coho in the Russian River were almost completely eradicated.

“We were seeing less than 10 adults returning to the Russian River watershed, when years ago there were thousands of fish returning,” says Mariska Obedzinski, who helps run California Sea Grant’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program.

The Russian River watershed was once a stronghold for Central California’s coho salmon population, but Obedzinski says things like extreme habitat loss and drought years have led to the downturn. According to California Sea Grant, the state’s coho has dwindled down to an estimated 15% of its population in the 1940s.

The smolt run in the Russian River lasts from March through the end of June. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Obedzinski’s group, along with federal and local agencies, have been helping rebuild the coho population in Sonoma County through a combination of restoration efforts, monitoring and the hatchery program, which began in 2004. That was when some of the last handful of coho born in the watershed were captured and bred.

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“It was a last attempt to really save the coho salmon in the Russian River watershed,” says Obedzinkski.

Now the program releases thousands of smolt, at different life stages, throughout the year in the Russian’s tributaries. More than 1.5 million smolt have been released since the program began. The fish are closely monitored to see how they're surviving, but watching over these young fish after releasing them into the wild is no easy task.

Teams of biologists go out daily to check traps in five of the watershed’s creeks, hoping to find a mix of healthy hatchery-born and natural-born salmon.

This rig helps capture smolt that are swimming to the Russian River. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

A contraption, made up netting and pipes, funnels anything going downstream into a covered, wooden box. On any given day, anywhere from a handful to hundreds of smolt can be found inside. And sometimes, other aquatic animals get stuck in the trap too.

“If there's something big, you can hear it splashing around in there,” says Nick Bauer, a fisheries biologist with California Sea Grant.

Bauer and his team count and scan every single coho they find before letting them go back downstream to the Russian River. A metal detector helps identify which fish have an implanted wire tag, which means they're hatchery-born.

Then a portion are measured and weighed. An even smaller portion get trackers implanted in them, which help biologists monitor the migratory habits of the smolt and find out whether the fish come back to these creeks as adults to spawn.

The process of counting and scanning smolt can take a few hours or all day, depending on how many fish are caught. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

“We'd like to see wild fish being able to complete their life cycle in the streams on their own,” says Obedzinksi. “We ultimately would like to see the whole hatchery component go out of business.”

Obedzinksi says the program is making progress. About 1,200 natural-born smolt were recorded in the watershed in 2018, the second highest amount documented since the program began, according to a recent report from California Sea Grant.

“If this program wasn't in place, coho salmon would pretty much be extinct in the watershed,” says Bauer.

But Bauer also says it’s not just about the coho. These fish are a cornerstone of a healthy ecosystem.

“Over 127 different species will feed on salmon,” says Bauer. “And they perform this function of bringing ocean derived nutrients back to our freshwater systems and increase the health of the whole system.”

Now the smolt heading to the Pacific Ocean are on their own. They’re at the beginning of what can be a treacherous journey. Most will spend about a year and a half growing up in the ocean, facing all sorts of predators and possibly another drought, before attempting to make their way back to the Russian River to spawn.

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