Friday, November 16, 2018

A Journey of Ten Million Years...the Salmon of the Sierra Nevada

Chinook Salmon attempting to enter the fish ladder at Camanche Dam on the Mokelumne River
They've been coming here for at least ten million years. Every year, without fail. The lands changed, but still they came. If one waterway was blocked, they eventually found another. Sometimes they were isolated, and could never return to the sea, but they survived anyway. They are the salmon and trout of the Sierra Nevada.
Stanislaus River at Knight's Ferry

Anadromous fish are those that live much of their lives in the oceans, but which return to freshwater streams to reproduce. One might wonder why they would have such a complicated breeding scheme. In all likelihood, it had to do with the survival of the young fish. Rivers and streams tend to offer more hiding places than open ocean, and the young have a chance to grow large enough to survive. The most familiar of these fish are the various species of salmon and Steelhead Trout. I had several opportunities to view the November migration of the Chinook Salmon this week on three different rivers: the Mokelumne, the Tuolumne, and the Stanislaus.
In historical times, the fish ranged far into the interior of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades Range, being stopped only by cascades and waterfalls too high for them to jump. They numbered in the millions. As European and American colonizers replaced the Native Americans across the state, the fish began a steep decline.

One of the first and worst events was the Gold Rush of 1848. Miners tore up miles and miles of river gravels and disrupted the flow of the rivers with their placer mines (sluices, long-toms, and cradles). Hydraulic mines (water cannons) ripped away billions of cubic yards of gravels from the hillsides and choked riverbeds with egg-smothering silt and clay. Vast amounts of water were diverted from river headwaters to feed the hydraulic mines through a system of flumes and pipelines.

Somehow the fish survived this onslaught, but then something more insidious happened. The dam-makers arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s to build reservoirs to divert water for irrigation purposes. The dams themselves were barriers to the upstream movement of the fish, but even worse was that water diversions left the rivers to small and warm for their survival. The mega-dams were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, diverting even more water. One river, the San Joaquin, ceased to flow most years over a stretch of about sixty miles. By the time the last dam was built, more than 95% of the historical breeding grounds for the fish had been made inaccessible to their migration (see the map below).
The blue portions of the rivers have salmon. The historical range is shown in black. Source:
Millions of years ago, this landscape was much different. The Sierra Crest was lower than it is today, but the summit region was covered by volcanic complexes not unlike the Lassen Peak complex and other parts of the Cascades. Periodic eruptions sent steaming lahars (volcanic mudflows) down the river canyons and onto the floor of the Great Valley (which may have actually been a shallow sea in this area). The rocks from this time period, 5 to 12 million years ago, are called the Mehrten Formation and they can be found throughout the Mother Lode foothills.

The Mehrten Formation has yielded up a treasure trove of fossil species. At Turlock Lake fossils were found of Giant Tortoises and Oncorhynchus rastrosus, the Spike-toothed Salmon. These remarkable salmon were as long as eight feet. They apparently used their "tusks" to fight for territory. Otherwise their lives were similar to the salmon of today. The riverbanks were populated by horses, camels, bison, antelope, giant ground sloths, mastodons, and carnivores, including the ancestors of the bears and wolves. The woodlands were dominated by sycamore and oak. For an excellent overview of the fossil record, check out the technical article by Sankey, Biewer and others, or read their excellent book The Giant Spike-Toothed Salmon and Other Extinct Wildlife of Central California.
Oncorhynchus rastrosus, the Giant Spike-toothed Salmon. Artist: Jake Biewer

Erosional processes steal nutrients from the land and carry them to the sea. It has been remarked that salmon and other anadromous fish return the gift. After they fight their way up the streams and rivers, and after they lay and fertilize their eggs, the fish die. Their bodies provide food for a host of carnivores and scavengers. Long before I found any fish in the Mokelumne River the other day I sensed the lurking presence of several dozen Turkey Vultures. I wasn't actually thinking about fish at that moment, but wondered why so many vultures were hanging around the river.

Moments later the reason was clear, as many were already feasting on the dead fish. The alert eyes that followed the movement of the fish are of an ancient lineage as well. Turkey Vultures are the most common of the avian scavengers, but their ancestors and Condor relatives patrolled these rivers millions of years ago.
These fish have survived for at least ten million years, and it has taken only a century and a half to threaten their very existence. Even now intense controversy follows the negotiations over how much water to devote to agriculture and how much to preserve the future of the salmon and the entire ecosystem that they inhabit. It's not a fish versus people proposition as some have portrayed it. It is a larger question of whether we want to preserve healthy river habitats for clean water, a diverse ecosystem, and for our own recreation and inspiration. Agricultural interests in the drainage of the San Joaquin showed in the 1940s that they were more than willing to destroy a river to apportion every drop of water. Things began to change in the 2000s as agreements were reached to restore flows to the lower river and bring back viable populations of Chinook Salmon. I hope we can be as wise in the other water conflicts around the San Joaquin Valley.

These videos are from the Mokelumne River below Camanche Reservoir, the end of the road for the Chinook Salmon. I had never visited the area before, so I was exploring the trails at the day use area below the fish hatchery. There were lots of fish in the river, and large numbers of them were struggling to break through the gates of the fish ladder, which was closed. I followed the fish ladder into the hatchery grounds, wondering if it actually provided access to the reservoir, but it didn't. It led to holding ponds that were already full of salmon. When the fish are ready, the eggs are harvested and fertilized, providing the stock for the hatchery. The young fish are later released into the river at the hatchery and other locations downstream.

These hatcheries are one way of dealing with the devastating loss of habitat for the salmon, but it seems it would be better if we could provide access to their ancestral breeding grounds upstream. I don't claim any expertise in these matters, but there have to be better answers than what we see happening today. They've been here for at least ten million years, and deserve a chance to be around for a few more.

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