Last week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) successfully transported 1.1 million juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon from Iron Gate Hatchery on the Klamath River to Trinity River Hatchery. Drought conditions and water quality were so bad that managers were forced to truck the smolts to a different facility and wait until conditions improve. When that happens is anyone’s guess, but most of these hatchery smolts would have died had they been released. Back in May, sampling discovered an unprecedented fish kill on the Klamath River with 97% of smolts testing positive for a deadly parasite, at one point.

Juvenile Chinook salmon are herded by CDFW staff in a raceway at the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery, Siskiyou County, Calif., prior to their loading and relocation to the Fall Creek facility on July 7, 2021. (CDFW Photo/Travis VanZant)​

“It’s extremely challenging to raise cold water fish species in a drought,” said Dr. Mark Clifford, Hatchery Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Northern Region. “The reality is most of these fish would have died if we released them into the river. We need to maintain the integrity of the fall run on the Klamath River and we especially can’t afford to lose this generation of fish.”

While the impact of hatcheries on wild fish populations has been drawn into a negative light recently, the severity of water conditions is the focus here. If water conditions are bad enough for millions of juvenile smolts, do the endangered wild species stand a chance?

Juvenile Chinook salmon swim in a raceway at Iron Fish Gate Hatchery, Siskiyou County, Calif., before their relocation to the Fall Creek facility on July 7, 2021. (CDFW Photo/Travis VanZant)​

Thankfully, they have hope, as the four Klamath River Dams are slated for removal by 2024. Dam removal will restore access for salmon species and is expected to have a cooling effect on upriver water temperatures and improve resilience to climate change.

The 1.1 million juvenile smolts currently housed at Trinity River Hatchery will continue to grow this summer and are expected to be released later this fall, when water conditions improve.

Photos courtesy of CDFW/Travis VanZant

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