Salmon fry before being released just outside San Francisco Bay. Jim Wilson / The New York Times / Redux

Why Everybody Is So Excited About 23 Salmon

All Categories Animal Welfare Conservation Lakes and Rivers Wildlife

By Alisa Opar

For Chinook salmon, the urge to return home and spawn isn’t just strong — it’s imperative. And for the first time in more than 65 years, at least 23 fish that migrated as juveniles from California’s San Joaquin River and into the Pacific Ocean have heeded that call and returned as adults during the annual spring run.

For thousands of years, spring-run Chinook were the most abundant salmon in central California. Every year beginning in March, thousands upon thousands of adult fish made their way from the Pacific Ocean into San Francisco Bay, then muscled upstream for nearly 370 miles through the Central Valley’s rich agricultural lands until they reached the cool waters of the high Sierra Nevada. Their counterparts, fall-run Chinook, would make the same journey in the autumn.

Spring-run Chinook spent the summer near the river’s headwaters, spawned there in the fall, and then died, the nutrients from their decaying carcasses feeding insects and fertilizing aquatic and terrestrial plant life. Their offspring would make the perilous reverse trip, either swimming to sea during their first spring, when still small enough to fit in a human hand, or remaining in the river upland and migrating to the ocean as yearlings the following spring. Two to five years later, instinct would compel them to return to their natal grounds to spawn, continuing the cycle.

Development in the 19th and 20th centuries broke that ancient pattern. The San Joaquin was dammed to meet the demands of irrigation for agriculture, and by the 1940s some sections of the river had run dry. Cut off from their spawning grounds, Chinook disappeared from the river.

But the San Joaquin — and the Chinook and other wildlife that depend on it — are getting a second chance. Thanks to a lawsuit brought by NRDC against the federal government that was settled in 2006after 18 years of litigation, native fish populations are to be restored to “good condition” while minimizing the impacts of reduced water diversions for agricultural and other uses.

California state and federal government plans call for spending nearly $650 million through 2025 to bring back flow, wetlands and the fish populations of the San Joaquin. Releases of water from the Friant Dam specifically for restoration purposes began in 2009, followed by the fish reintroduction effort in 2014. The 23 adult Chinook salmon caught (and released) this year represent the first spring-run salmon to return from the Pacific to the upland reaches of the river since 1950.

“This is a pretty momentous step,” said Doug Obegi, NRDC’s director of the California River Restoration. “Despite [the drought] drying up the river completely and destroying riparian wetlands, spring-run salmon are coming back. It’s really encouraging, and it’s a hopeful sign that we can ultimately rebuild salmon runs to tens of thousands of salmon returning.”

The effort is benefiting more than just the salmon. “We now have a connected river year round,” said Obegi. “It’s less than what’s called for in the settlement, but it’s helping to restore the riparian zone, and that’s restoring birds and other native fish. We’re starting to find sturgeon and Pacific lamprey.

Spring-run Chinook salmon just before they’re released in the Upper San Joaquin River (credit Steve Martarano USFWS)