According to legend, when white settlers settled in Northern Californian in the 1800’s, there were so many salmon in the McCloud River that you could walk across the water on the backs of the fish. After the construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940’s, salmon runs could no longer reach their historical spawning grounds on the river.
Now, a new pilot project is bringing the beloved salmon back to the waters of the McCloud River.
On Monday, officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife joined with partners from the Winnemem Wintu Tribe to place endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs into the McCloud River upstream of Shasta Reservoir for the first time since the 1940s.
The partners collected approximately 20,000 fertilized winter-run Chinook salmon eggs from USFWS’ Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Redding and drove them 80 miles to the Ah-Di-Na Campground within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on the banks of the McCloud River. The eggs were placed into specialized incubators alongside the McCloud River’s cold waters where the species once spawned. Another 20,000 eggs will be transferred to the incubators in the McCloud River in early August. Both cohorts will be released into the river as fry.
Once the eggs hatch later this summer, salmon fry will swim into the McCloud River for the first time since construction of Shasta Dam in the 1940s blocked the migration of adult salmon back to these same mountain waters. Rotary screw traps in the river will collect the salmon fry, which will then be transported downstream of Shasta Dam and released to the Sacramento River to migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
“While we have carried out a number of different actions to see this iconic species through another year of drought, there’s no denying that Monday’s work just feels huge,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “It’s historic and healing and incredibly hopeful for the future. We are so grateful for the wisdom and guidance the Winnemem Wintu Tribe provided about their ancestral lands and waters, which helped shape this effort. We’re proud to help deliver these eggs and this species home to the McCloud River.”
The action was in response to the warming Sacramento River and its impact on depleting salmon populations in Northern California. The CDFW continues to spawn millions of salmon each year, but the fry have difficulty surviving the warm waters of the Sacramento River. The much colder McCloud River should enable the fish to grow to a larger size and hopefully survive the trip to the Pacific Ocean.
The release was accompanied by a tribal celebration by the Winnemem Wintu, which has long advocated for the return of salmon to their ancestral homeland. Staff from CDFW and tribal representatives will camp alongside the incubators and monitor the eggs and the young salmon as they develop and disperse into the river over the next few months.
“We are asking that the river receive these eggs. We are asking that the old-time ways continue and that they grow in that way,” said Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk in explaining the native words, songs and ceremony immediately preceding the eggs’ return to the McCloud River. “We put down that song so they have a fighting chance.”