All That Record-Breaking Rain Was Really Good for SF Bay Area Salmon

Coho and Chinook salmon are either considered “threatened” or “endangered” throughout their endemic ranges. But the recent spat of Bay Area storms gave them a major conservation boost.

Salmon populations hold a particular kind of importance in Northern California, including in the SF Bay Area. For one: Legal fishing for Chinook Salmon — a member of the anadromous fish group that’s threatened by human-induced climate change and damming practices — is excellent in the Bay Area. But moreover: Salmon have a cultural and spiritual significance in the region, especially for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who view the disappearance of local salmon populations as a threat to our collective futures; these fish also represent the cyclical, natural pattern of resurgence and renewal for the Wintu Tribe. 

There’s even an entire four-installment podcast series on this relationship titled “A Prayer For Salmon,” which will tell the epic story about a Northern California Indigenous tribe’s fight to exist and their people’s deep spiritual connection with the land and the salmon, debuting on February 2nd.

Suffice it to say that salmon are integral to the Bay Area’s ecology and human history — and populations of these important fish just got a major boost, due to this month’s historic, record-shattering storms.

These massive winter storms have not only filled local water reservoirs to capacity — all eight Marin County’s reservoirs are 100% full, for example – but they’ve also helped rush new life into local waterways, making the annual spawning migrations for native salmon easier. 

(Around this exact same time last year, Chinook salmon began popping up all over the Bay Area, traveling to spawning grounds they haven’t reached in decades. The reason was the same: heavier than usual storms helped both ease drought conditions and allow safe passage to breeding areas previously unreachable. The prior year in 2021, the Mill Creek Dam was also removed. This suddenly freed up water to flow through the area’s watersheds, joining these with San Vicente Creek, and improving crucial habitat for the redwood forest’s aquatic inhabitants, like salmon; we humans and our region’s populations of salmon continue reaping the benefits of having the aforenoted dam cleared.)

“We’re anticipating that [this year’s rain] is going to be a really great event to bring more fish in and finish up the coho season with more activity,” said Ayano Hayes, a watershed biologist for Turtle Island Restoration Network, to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month amid 2023’s deluge of rainstorms. Coho salmon began arriving in the region from the ocean in November, and Hayes believes the current storms will bring in the remaining adults this year through January; most salmon species spawn in February, leaving their fertilized eggs to hatch between April and May.

Recently, more than 150 Chonook salmon that were raised by the Coleman Fish Hatchery were released into the Sacramento River, in part because of the ideal, concealing conditions generated by the “rainy weather.” 

“We choose the rainy weather to release them usually just right before a big storm hits because the river is going to start getting really rough and things are going to get turned up and by that happening it increases the turbidity or the murkiness in the water,” Sharon Clay, the Curator of Animal Programs at Turtle Bay, tells KRCR. “[The river conditions are] gonna give them cover from predators and give them a better chance of surviving and making their way down the river and into the ocean.”

In 2022, National Park Service fisheries biologist Michael Reichmuth was “stunned” when he saw Chinook salmon showing up inside Redwood Creek in Muir Woods National Monument.

Why? The stream had no history of any salmon migrating through it. Chinook, a.k.a “king salmon,” also tend to prefer larger waterways than Redwood Creek, meaning that the creek had reached a size conducive to successful Chinook salmon travel, allowing them to make their way to their home base in rivers.

“Is that really a Chinook?” Reichmuth recalled in a blog post published by National Parks Travel last week. “After a big storm like we had, the river was not that clear. I’m seeing these fish and think that it doesn’t quite look like a coho. … When we first saw them, it was like, ‘that coho looks really big.’”

Reichmuth and his team counted not one, but eighty individual Chinook salmon. In just a single day. Inside a stream… that they had no history of being seen at. 

Alas, this year didn’t produce such a “shocking” surprise; these storms came too late in the spawning season for the Central Valley fall-run Chinook. But the wetting and rehydrating effects of December and January’s storms could well help create favorable migrating conditions for when salmon begin spawning again in October.

California presently has twelve anadromous fish hatcheries — all of which will begin releasing millions of reared juvenile salmon, also known as “fry,” into saltwater bays and near brackish coastal rivers come spring. There’s little doubt that these rains won’t help these vulnerable, ecologically important wade through regional waterways. 

When these salmon reach sexually mature in 2024, we’ll likely get a better picture of just how the late 2022 and early 2023 storms had on our regional aquafauna. In the meantime, the SF Bay Area’s growing beaver population will help better their survival odds by way of creating new safe places for these fish to develop. 

Feature image: Courtesy of Flickr via USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

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