Salmon population surges in Central California's streams

Sacramento BeeNovember 13, 2010 

Salmon are returning to Central Valley rivers and streams in impressive numbers this fall, restoring hope that years of shortages and fishing closures are over.

It's a dramatic turnaround from last year, when the Central Valley fall chinook salmon run hit a historic low. Scientists blamed poor ocean conditions and a century of habitat degradation in freshwater spawning areas.

It got so bad that federal officials closed commercial fishing in 2008 and 2009, taking California salmon off dinner menus for the first time ever.

Now the fish are surging back. The numbers are not nearly as robust as in decades past. But ocean conditions have improved, and myriad small habitat projects are starting to bear fruit.

Bryon Harris, 26, saw the results. He was walking along Auburn Ravine in Lincoln recently with a friend. The stream runs through Placer County before emptying into the Sacramento River via the Natomas Cross Canal.

"We hear this flopping and it sounded like the rocks were crashing," said Harris. "We look over and there's a big old salmon right there . . . and there's a few more trapped in there, trying to make it. It was jaw-dropping, almost."

The salmon made it that far because this is the first year in decades that a number of small, seasonal diversion dams have been removed from the stream. As a result, 3-foot salmon have been seen thrashing upstream behind mini-malls and housing tracts in suburban Lincoln. The volunteer group Save Auburn Ravine Salmon and Steelhead persuaded landowners – with a nudge from law enforcement – to remove the irrigation dams. Federal law requires removal between Oct. 15 and April 15 so salmon can pass. But before they were reminded this year, many owners either didn't know or forgot.

"I've fished the Auburn Ravine for 10 years at least, and I've never seen a salmon in there, ever," said Harris. "I was shocked."

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