Science Spotlight

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  • March 23, 2018

A brownish-green river with a glassy surface flows through semi-arid land as two men fish from the rocky shore
Surveying Ventura River in Ventura County

A person in a black, full-body wetsuit floats, face-down, in a clear, shallow stream lined by forest and riparian vegetation
Snorkel survey in Hollow Tree Creek in Mendocino County

A young steelhead trout is barely visible, camouflaged against greenish-golden rocks in a stream
Hollow Tree Creek steelhead

Taking care of California’s fish and wildlife wouldn’t be possible without managing the resources upon which they depend. To that end, CDFW has an entire branch – and many scientific staff – dedicated to the scientific study, and planning and management of water resources.

Within the Water Branch, CDFW’s Instream Flow Program (IFP) is tasked with collecting and contributing data necessary to make all kinds of important management decisions about ecological function, fish rearing, spawning and migration and habitat suitability.

In the simplest terms, “instream flow” refers to the rate of the water running through a waterway in a natural environment. But when one considers all the interests competing for use of that water – fisherman, boaters, farmers, businesses, water districts, and fish and wildlife themselves – the complexity of the subject is evident.

Measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), instream flow can be measured at different times of the year in a specific location in a waterway. The fluctuations can tell scientists quite a bit about the ecosystem health of a watershed. While some watersheds have flowing water throughout the year and others are intermittent it is often the responsibility of water managers to distribute the water between uses. CDFW, a natural resource management agency, is faced with the complex task of identifying and recommending instream flows necessary for supporting natural resources. Determining instream flows are crucial so that aquatic, riparian, and terrestrial resources dependent on water will be considered and protected during water distribution activities.

Guided by the California Water Action Plan, the Public Resources Code and the Fish and Game Code, IFP staff conduct flow studies, collect field data, develop guidelines for quality assurance, conduct outreach and coordinate with other agencies and interested parties on program-related activities.

In the past year, some of IFP staff’s largest projects have included:

  • A flow study at the South Fork of the Eel Watershed, which supports threatened coho, Chinook and steelhead.
  • A study of 46 coastal steelhead streams (Ventura County to Siskiyou County) to develop flow criteria and evaluate historic flow trends.
  • A flow study to identify flow regimes that will protect endangered Southern California steelhead in the Ventura River.
  • Technical studies and final flow recommendations based upon the needs of South-Central Coast steelhead in Monterey County’s Big Sur River.
  • Ongoing training for IFP staff, to ensure that field studies in swift water are carried out safely.

To learn more about these specific projects, please download the link opens in new windowIFP’s 2017 Year in Review (PDF) document, available on CDFW’s website.

A Featured Scientist Q&A with the IFP manager Robert Holmes is also available on the CDFW Science Institute page.

CDFW photos. Top photo: IFP staff hold a planning meeting prior to a survey on the Ventura River in Ventura County

Categories: General
  • March 9, 2018

map of Battle Creek watershed area

Habitat is the key to the long-term survival of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook in California. Since 1999, CDFW has been working with multiple agencies and private parties on planning efforts to restore the population of these endangered salmon. More than $100 million has been allocated to specific habitat restoration work on Battle Creek, which comprises approximately 48 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.

Over the next two months, link opens in new windowapproximately 200,000 juvenile winter-run Chinook will be released into the North Fork of Battle Creek. The introduction of these fish, which were spawned from adults last summer, is occurring sooner than expected due the availability of fish from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery Winter-run Chinook Captive Broodstock Program. The fish were raised at Coleman National Fish Hatchery and are being released by Coleman Hatchery personnel. These additional fish could help bolster the winter-run Chinook population and be a potential catalyst in their recovery.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Doug Killam has worked on the Battle Creek Reintroduction Plan for nearly a decade and has been instrumental in moving in-stream projects forward. Killam sees the release of 200,000 smolts as an important step in the overall effort. The release will reestablish winter-run Chinook in a new drainage and create a separate new population. Currently there is only one viable population existing in the Sacramento River directly below Keswick and Shasta Dams. The recent drought affected the volume of the critical cold-water pool in Shasta Lake and the release of warmer water in the drought years of 2014 and 2015 resulted in major losses to eggs and young salmon below the dam. Biologists have long recognized that having more than one winter-run Chinook population is imperative for the long-term survival of the species.

A volcanic region with rugged canyons and dramatic scenery, the North Fork of Battle Creek is unique since it has both cold snowmelt water and large amounts of spring water flowing into it at critical times for winter-run salmon to hold over in and spawn in. It is also one of a handful of waters that can support all four of the Chinook salmon runs that return to the Sacramento River Basin. Hydroelectric development of the creek in the early 1900s largely eliminated winter-run Chinook and other salmonid runs from swimming far upstream to access the cooler water required for these unique summer spawning salmon. Recent efforts to bring the fish back to the North Fork include dam removals, rock fall removal, new fish ladders and fish screens and – most importantly – an agreement to increase stream flows to provide fish with the water quantity and quality they need to survive and thrive in this important keystone stream.

CDFW photo by Heather McIntire. Map by CDFW Fisheries Branch.

Categories: General
  • May 24, 2017

A tiny transponder is placed inside the body cavity of each female salmon. When the fish lay their eggs, the transponders will be expelled, providing scientists with information on when, where and how successful each spawning female is.

a man in a CDFW uniform places a live salmon into a holding tank
After the salmon are tagged, they are returned to a holding pond while the anesthetic wears off.

a man's hands hold a large salmon in an examining trough
CDFW scientists electronically identify and perform an ultrasound on each fish in order to assess their pre-spawning condition.

man holds a salmon up
Each salmon in the project received a tiny identity tag that is entered into a database. The computerized system allows biologists to follow individual fish throughout their life cycle.

three women type on laptop computers in a tent
A team of scientists read, evaluate and record data for each individual salmon.

On Thursday, May 18, fisheries biologists implanted acoustic transponders into 60 endangered adult spring-run Chinook salmon. The transponders will track their movements and help determine spawning success later this season. The salmon will be released to spawn naturally in the San Joaquin River near Friant over the next three months.

Spring-run Chinook have been absent from the river for many decades. Reintroduction is one of multiple strategies biologists are using to reestablish naturally spawning runs of these fish as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project. The project – which is jointly coordinated by CDFW, the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service – is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River and restore a self-sustaining Chinook fishery while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from restoration flows.

A total of 120 salmon will be implanted and released at two different times. Biologists will track the fish from each release to determine which is most successful. This release strategy provides the hatchery-raised salmon the opportunity to select their own mates, construct redds (a spawning nest in the stream gravel) and spawn naturally.

CDFW photos by Harry Morse

Categories: General
  • March 7, 2017

Since 1959 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has used a combination of scientific techniques to better understand fish populations and the general health of Northern California waterways. Examples include tagging sturgeon, trawling the Delta for smelt, and counting salmon carcasses. CDFW uses data from these strategies and others to help influence operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, ultimately helping decision makers determine water flows. link opens in new windowThis short video highlights these operations along the Sacramento River and into the Delta, including a smelt survey conducted by Environmental Scientist Felipe la Luz.

a man and a woman on the aft deck of small vessel on a river a woman and man prepare a fish-catching net

Categories: Wildlife Research
CDFW Science Institute logo

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