By Rachel Roberts
The California drought has been affecting more than just residents and farmers—since February, state and federal wildlife agencies in California have been deploying convoys of tanker trucks to help transport hatchery salmon downriver to the San Francisco Bay.
Stafford Lehr, the Chief of Fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said about the operation, “It’s huge. This is a massive effort statewide on multiple systems.” 35,000-gallon tanker trucks are loaded with baby salmon and then transported on Highway 99 for an hour and a half to San Francisco so they can live out their adult life in the sea.
With California heading into its fourth year of drought, the river routes that salmon would normally take to the Pacific Ocean have become too warm and too shallow for them to survive.
Fish biologist Don Portz of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that Central Valley’s San Joaquin River, which is vital to salmon migration, is “bone dry. Bone dry.” The river’s water has been heavily impacted by drought and dam use of the water for irrigation and agricultural purposes. Last year, 95% of the state’s winter run of Chinook salmon died, resulting in severe consequences for the local ecosystem and California’s fishing industry.
This operation across California has required efforts from all five government hatcheries in the Central Valley. Under the Endangered Species Act, Chinook salmon are considered a species of concern, meaning the species is in decline and in need of immediate conservation efforts.
Although transporting them by trucks is less than ideal, according to officials, there is no other way for salmon to make their annual migration downstream. Without this effort, salmon end up either dried up or as prey for raccoons and others predators.
According to Lehr, although efforts are currently focused on Chinook salmon, they are anticipating having to transport some individual steelhead trout in Southern California two or three times this summer as the drought becomes more intense.
And when some of the rivers no longer have enough water left to shelter fish, wildlife officials plan to remove and transport the salmon to hatcheries while they wait out the drought. Currently two isolated native species from dried up rivers have been living in government hatcheries feeding on flies that rangers catch in bug-zappers.