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Healthy salmon runs on other rivers raise questions about the Sacramento

Kirk Portocarrero, right, guides his boat down the Sacramento River near the Woodson Bridge in Corning, hoping to find salmon. Portocarrero offers chartered fishing trips on the river. Photo by Greg Barnette / Record Searchlight

Kirk Portocarrero, right, guides his boat down the Sacramento River near the Woodson Bridge in Corning, hoping to find salmon. Portocarrero offers chartered fishing trips on the river.



Goeff Chapman of Reno reels in his line while salmon fishing on the Sacramento River in November. Record Searchlight file photo
Goeff Chapman of Reno reels in his line while salmon fishing on the Sacramento River in November.

But while the Sacramento has continued to see declining returns this year, fall Chinook runs on the Klamath and Columbia rivers - the next two major river systems north - appear to be healthy.

"The only real weak link river next year looks like the Sacramento again," said Paul Heikkila, a commercial salmon fisherman in Coos Bay, Ore.

That's caused critics, Heikkila among them, to wonder what's different with the Sacramento. They say the salmon from the three rivers have spent time in the same ocean water, so food supply at sea shouldn't be singled out as the problem.

"It's the same ocean that is feeding the Klamath, the Columbia and everything else," said Dick Pool, president of Pro-Troll Fishing Products, a Concord company that sells salmon fishing gear.

Pool and others contend that there must be something wrong with the Sacramento that is causing salmon returns to keep dropping.

"If you don't get the little fish to the ocean it doesn't make any difference what the ocean does," Heikkila said.

Six years after a record salmon return of close to 500,000 fall-run Chinook salmon, the return at Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Anderson is down to about 14,000 fish.

And that's with bans this year on off-shore commercial fishing and limited sports fishing along the river.

"If there had been a fishery (commercial and sport catch), we would have had little or nothing," said Scott Hamelberg, Coleman's manager.

While it's too early to tell how runs on the three river systems fared this fall - scientists monitoring each are still tabulating data and it should be out in February - counts at hatcheries on the Klamath and Columbia rivers and a major fish ladder on the Snake River tell different tales.

Contrasting the low runs recorded at Coleman, the fall-run Chinook count at Iron Gate Hatchery on the Klamath is only slightly off average, and at the fish ladder at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, a major tributary to the Columbia, there's been a record run.

This autumn, 9,847 chinook returned to Iron Gate, which is near the Oregon border in Siskiyou County, said Keith Pomeroy, the hatchery's manger.

"It's a little less than average," he said.

At Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in southeastern Washington, 16,628 chinook made the swim this fall, said Michelle DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, a group that monitors fish runs on the Columbia, in Portland.

"That's an all-time record," DeHart said.

The dam has been in place since 1975.

Although the differing figures seem to support the theory that the dropping Sacramento salmon numbers must be caused by problems in the river, they actually could support the notion that ocean conditions are the culprit, said Doug Killam, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Red Bluff.

"Usually when one state is doing really good," he said, "the other state could be doing really bad," he said.

While state and federal agencies that manage the fish on the three rivers are conducting studies into the cause of the Sacramento salmon crash, Killam said a direct cause has not been identified.

Along with ocean conditions, discussions of the salmon decline often focus on the amount of water pulled from the Sacramento and its delta with the San Joaquin River for agriculture.

Each year state and federal pumps draw about 6 million acre-feet - or enough water to submerge 6 million acres of land under a foot of water - from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But, the pumping shouldn't get the blame, said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District - the nation's largest water district, with more than 600,000 acres in western Fresno and Kings counties. The pumping is just a piece of the massive Central Valley Project, she said.

"It's a huge system and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed," Woolf said.

Power plants, urban wastewater systems and ship traffic could be contributing to the salmon problems on the Delta, Woolf said.

As for diversions along the upper Sacramento, those used to pose problems for wayward salmon who got lost in the irrigation canals and never made it out to sea, said Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority. But most canals now have screens to keep fish out.

The canal delivers water to 150,000 agricultural acres south of Red Bluff.

Like Woolf, Sutton said there are a host of other factors along the river and in the ocean that should be considered in examining what is causing salmon numbers to drop.

"It shouldn't always be blamed on the projects," he said.

Regardless of what's behind the Sacramento crash, fishermen fear it will continue next year and they'll again have to keep their nets and hooks out of the water.

"We expect widespread closures again," said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Like many involved with the fishing industry, Spain blames harsh conditions on the Sacramento caused by too much pumping during the drought.

"The problem is (the young salmon) never survived to get to the ocean," Spain said. "This shouldn't have come to a surprise to anybody."

Reporter Dylan Darling can be reached at 225-8266 or ddarling@redding.com.

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              Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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