According to legend, when white settlers arrived 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 partnership is bringing the beloved salmon back to the waters above Shasta Dam.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), NOAA Fisheries, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe have come together to restore the Chinook salmon population in the mountains north of Redding, California. The three-party agreement, signed on May 1, 2023, aims at returning these migratory fish to their original spawning areas in the cold mountain rivers that are now obstructed by the Shasta Reservoir.
The joint venture is set to provide ecological and cultural restoration and revive fishing opportunities for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who have historically relied on the Chinook salmon as a major food source and cultural keystone.
Endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, which have been heavily affected by three years of drought, will particularly benefit from this initiative. As these fish travel and breed in the lower Sacramento River, high temperatures can prove fatal for their eggs. In the summer of 2022, the tribe, along with state and federal agencies, transported 40,000 fertilized eggs to the cold McCloud River above the Shasta Reservoir. This intervention allowed many salmon to hatch and swim down the river for the first time since the completion of the Shasta Dam in the 1940s.
CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham spoke about the landmark agreement, stating, “This is an historic day and it’s long overdue. We can’t change the wrongs that were done in the past, but we have an obligation in the present to make it better. With this agreement we are bringing life back to the McCloud River.”
The agreements require the Winnemem Wintu Tribe to be actively involved in decision-making processes concerning the Chinook salmon. The tribe is set to share traditional ecological knowledge and practices. This cooperative approach harks back to the tribe’s contribution to Livingston Stone’s establishment of the nation’s first Chinook salmon hatchery on the McCloud in 1872.
CDFW has granted $2.3 million to the tribe to support their involvement in salmon conservation initiatives. Plans are underway to assess the potential reintroduction of Chinook salmon that were relocated from the McCloud River to streams in New Zealand over a century ago.
In 2022, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) initiated an experimental system for gathering juvenile winter-run salmon that hatch in the McCloud River, forming part of a broader future reintroduction program. The DWR intends to continue testing later this year, with recovery plans for the species recommending an ongoing program of annual winter-run Chinook salmon transplants to spawning habitats in the McCloud River.
NOAA Fisheries has identified the highly endangered winter-run Chinook salmon as a “Species in the Spotlight,” indicating that urgent, focused recovery actions are required. The return of this species to the McCloud River is a pivotal part of the 2021-2025 Action Plan for the species, which is also listed under California’s state endangered species act.