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article imageBaby steelhead released early as California river water heats up

By Nathan Salant     Jun 19, 2014 in Environment
Rancho Cordova - State wildlife officials released hundreds of thousands of baby steelhead trout from a Northern California fish hatchery on Wednesday — months too early — to try to save their lives in the face of a severe drought.
The baby trout, known as salmonids, were deposited into the American River near Sacramento in the hope that they can survive the heat of summer expected to make water in the drought-stricken state's hatcheries too warm for them.
The fish normally get many more months to grow in the relative safety of hatcheries before being released into the river, where they swim to the Pacific Ocean to spawn and repopulate Northern California waterways.
California's fisherman contribute more than $300 million to the state economy.
So, on Wednesday, California Department of Fish and Wildlife workers netted and removed the last of more than 400,000 trout fingerlings from the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Gold River, trucked them to a boat launch and released them into the American River.
Water at the hatchery is expected to rise to 78 degrees by late summer, far too hot for the baby fish to tolerate.
"That's too hot for steelhead," Gary Novak, the hatchery manager, told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
"We expect they will have a better chance in the river," Novak said, where the fish could find cooler spots.
"The situation is pretty severe — I have to get rid of all my fish and then hope it rains next year," he said.
Nimbus Fish Hatchery is one of 22 such facilities run by the state to supply tens of millions of fish to California rivers, which would have been overfished to extinction without the program, the newspaper said.
On Wednesday, the last 85,000 finger-sized babies were released from the hatchery's tanks and workers with nets scooped them up to be transported to the American River and released.
The Nimbus hatchery released the last of its 3.6 million chinook salmon a few weeks ago, the newspaper said, and the American River Trout Hatchery in nearby Fair Oaks has released all of its fish.
"This happens to be the tip of the iceberg," Novak said.
"We have the warmest water, (but) with this drought I would assume there is concern at every hatchery," he said.
But experts said the state's other hatcheries, including federally managed Coleman Hatchery in Anderson, survive without having to empty themselves of fish.
But the drought also has left its mark on boating and other water management techniques, since boat ramps are not usable in many areas due to low water levels.
Trout and chinook salmon normally imprint on the rivers they are born in, enabling them to return in a few years when they spawn, but this year's fish may not get that opportunity because they are usually not released until February, the newspaper said.
Populations of river salmon and trout have been managed for decades, and Central Coast steelhead, once abundant in oceans and rivers in western states, has been listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act since 1997.
More about Trout, Salmon, California, Rivers, Water
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