Science Spotlight

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  • August 2, 2019

Creek running through hilly, riparian habitat filled with trees and bushes.
Rock Creek, where Shasta Crayfish were released by hand July 15.

Bucket filled with small crayfish.
Shasta Crayfish await delivery into their new home in Rock Creek. The Shasta Crayfish is a small- to medium-sized crayfish found only in northeast California.

White bucket with several crayfish.
Establishing populations of Shasta Crayfish in suitable water bodies that are inaccessible to invasive crayfish is the central effort in conserving the species.

Closeup of white bucket with several crayfish.
The mix of 28 Shasta Crayfish introduced into Rock Creek included both juveniles and adults of varying sizes.

A 20-year, multiagency effort to find a safe haven for California’s only remaining native crayfish culminated recently with the release of 28 Shasta Crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis) into a restored section of Rock Creek in Shasta County.

The Shasta Crayfish has been in decline and under assault for decades from the pervasive, nonnative, invasive Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), which not only outcompetes it for food and habitat but renders Shasta Crayfish females largely infertile through interbreeding. Found only in northeastern California, the Shasta Crayfish was listed as an endangered species by both the state and federal governments in 1988.

It was all smiles and optimism for a brighter future July 15, however, with the release of the 28 adult and juvenile Shasta Crayfish into a formerly dry, meadow portion of Rock Creek on property owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. That portion of Rock Creek, just six-tenths of a mile long, now flows with a reliable supply of cool, clear water with habitat enhancements that include rock clusters and riparian plantings.

Restoration of Rock Creek was completed in 2016 through a partnership with PG&E, CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the biological consulting firm Spring Rivers Ecological Sciences LLC.

Spring Rivers scuba divers collected Shasta Crayfish from the bottom of nearby Crystal Lake in June. Crystal Lake is believed to hold the most genetically robust population of Shasta Crayfish left in the wild but a population that’s also in decline as a result of the invading Signal Crayfish. The Shasta Crayfish were quarantined for 42 days before release into their new home.

Key to the Shasta Crayfish’s recovery as well as its biggest obstacle is establishing populations in waters inaccessible to the invasive Signal Crayfish. The refuge at Rock Creek was 20 years in the making by the time the site was identified, project proposals prepared and approved, permits secured, partnerships formalized, restoration work completed and the Shasta Crayfish translocated last month.

Restoration of the creek involved major construction removing a diversion dam upstream and rerouting a pipeline that supplied CDFW’s Crystal Lake Hatchery with water downstream. The location was deemed ideal as CDFW’s fish hatchery would block any Signal Crayfish in Crystal Lake from moving up into the restored portion of the creek.

In their new Rock Creek refuge, the Shasta Crayfish will be closely monitored. The hope is that they can serve as a sustainable, genetically diverse source population for future introductions.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Divers carefully released Shasta Crayfish by hand into their new home July 15. Prior to release, biologists measured and recorded their size and other data.

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Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General
  • July 26, 2019

Small brown rodent on white background
A tagged Amargosa vole. (National Geographic stock photo)

Group of three people wearing hats standing in dirt and cut grass next to large cage made of chain link fence in grassy area.
The “soft release structures” built for the voles were constructed in their natural habitat, giving the captive-bred animals time to adjust to the outdoors. (Photo courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)
 

Wildlife veterinarians recently hit an important milestone in their collective efforts to conserve a tiny endangered mammal native to the Mojave Desert. The population of Amargosa voles (Microtus californicus scirpensis), restricted to one small town in Inyo County, is now perilously small, due to habitat destruction, climate change and water diversions created to benefit humans. With much of the voles’ natural habitat now decimated, scientists estimate that fewer than 500 currently exist in the wild. (Read the original California Department of Fish and Wildlife Science Spotlight on Amargosa voles).

Co-led by CDFW Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford and UC Davis Veterinarian Dr. Janet Foley, the Amargosa vole recovery program started in 2012. After the population became nearly extinct in 2014, a captive breeding program was launched at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine as a last-ditch effort to save these tiny creatures, which are a key link in the food chain in their native habitat.

Since the breeding program’s inception, 364 voles have been born and weaned. Several small-scale trial releases have been attempted over the last few years, leading the scientists to identify a clear problem: the animals raised in captivity didn’t necessarily know how to behave in the wild. “The colony animals were a little pampered,” said Foley, referring to the first few trial releases. “They didn’t seem to have the skills to thrive on their own.”

So how to teach a pampered vole to fend for itself? The team members tried several approaches, finally solving an important piece of the puzzle last month. The key was to introduce captive-bred animals to their wild counterparts – and let the former learn from the latter.

The team chose to pair six captive males from the facility at UC Davis with six wild caught females. The voles were introduced to each other for 10 days in temporary indoor cages in Shoshone Village to see which pairs appeared compatible for mating.

Once voles had established pairs, they were moved outdoors. Large dog runs were carefully constructed in their marshland, over the native bulrush that provide shelter and food for the voles. Each run was lined with hardware cloth in order to contain the voles and keep out predators (including coyotes, bobcats, snakes, numerous bird species, bullfrogs, house cats and stray dogs).

For the next 21 days, the new vole pairs continued to get to know each other. Project staff used pit tags – basically telemetry microchips – to monitor their movements and to ensure that they were thriving.

“We used an antenna array around the feeding station, which connects to a computer, so we could watch how they move,” Foley explained. “Most of the time they’re under the bulrush so you can’t see them with the naked eye … but we were amused to see that they’re really not that shy. One male built a tunnel in his natural habitat, but when staff was nearby, he would come out and look right at us before he grabbed food and went back in.”

At the end of 21 days, the kennel doors were opened, allowing the voles to venture out on their own. Foley says that the team was somewhat surprised to see that the pairs generally continued to come and go from the kennels, demonstrating a comfort level with the makeshift shelter. More importantly, at least one of the pairs produced a litter, and several of the other females may be pregnant.

At some point, the team will remove the kennels entirely, at least until the next captive release occurs, likely sometime next spring or summer.

Foley said that she views the July release as a rousing success – not just because the animals are thriving, but because of the body of knowledge the team learned from this experience. “It was really important for us to learn that the colony animals could learn survival skills from their wild counterparts,” she explained. “It was a gamble, and the fact that it worked is so exciting.”

The team will continue to use this technique for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the goal is to create sustainable populations of Amargosa voles in several different areas. “If there’s a big fire, it could wipe out every marsh in the area,” Foley says. “Our work – and the techniques we are working to perfect -- will help ensure their survival.”

The captive breeding program is one part of a larger joint effort between agencies, universities and nonprofits to save the Amargosa vole. “Together with our partners at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, UC Davis and UC Berkeley, Shoshone Village and the Amargosa Conservancy, we are conducting habitat restoration, translocations, genetics and health monitoring and community engagement,” Clifford added. “What we’ve learned here not only helps voles, but also helps conserve the other species that rely on these fragile desert marshes.”

Photos Copyright UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Top Photo: One of the recovery team staff members monitoring the vole’s outdoor enclosure during the introductory period. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)

Media contacts:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8988
Trina Wood, UC Davis Communications, (530) 752-5257

 

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • July 18, 2019

Three urchins attached to kelp various kelp stalks underwater. Urchins cover large rock in background.
Purple urchins grazing a desolate kelp forest, Fort Ross, 2015. (Photo credit: A. Weltz)

Several urchins clustered together covering large rock underwater with kelp stalk
Purple urchins consuming bull kelp fronds and stipes and crowding out native red urchins and abalone.

Several urchins and single abalone attached to kelp stalks underwater with large rocks in background
Unusual photo of abalone and purple urchins consuming bull kelp stipes. (Photo credit: A. Maguire)

Several urchins and single abalone covering large rock underwater
Large aggregations of purple urchins are wiping out kelp forests, creating pink barrens and out-competing other species, such as abalone, for food. (Photo credit: A. Maguire)

Rocky beach along rocky cliff side with two people in background and kelp in foreground laying on rocks.
Aftermath of the harmful algal bloom: dead abalone and other invertebrates washed up on shore at Fort Ross in 2011. (Photo by N. Buck)

Abalone turned upside down
Shrunken abalone due to lack of food, October 2015. The foot (meat) of the abalone should be roughly the same size as its shell. (Photo credit: S. Holmes)

The view of northern California’s beautiful coastline has historically been pristine and breathtaking. With dense kelp forest canopies blanketing the surface of the nearshore areas and protecting the abundant rockfishes, red abalone, sea stars and red urchins that lived below, it was a healthy, natural ecosystem rich with thriving inhabitants. Unfortunately, the ocean is now changing, and this idyllic scene is no more. But California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) marine scientists, citizen scientists and grassroots groups are all coming together to help turn back time.Their immediate focus is to eradicate the ever-increasing purple urchins.

For thousands of years, canopies of thick bull kelp (Nereocytis luetkeana) could be found along the coast of northern California, creating a rich subtidal home for the many fishes and invertebrates that lived and thrived in this region of the state. Today, bull kelp forests should be the foundation of our nearshore coastal ecosystem. The floating canopy of this brown algae gives shelter to young fish and sea stars, and the kelp itself provides food for valuable species, such as red abalone and red sea urchin.

Unfortunately, with the warming and changing ocean conditions in the last few years, scientists have noticed an alarming decline in these once prolific kelp forests. Though annually variable, in the just past five years, California’s kelp forests have declined by 93%.

In 2013, a mysterious wasting disease wiped out a large portion of the local sea stars in northern and central California. As a result, purple urchin populations exploded in the absence of the sea star, their main predator.

By 2014, a large patch of warm water developed off the coast, creating a catalyst that has further changed this underwater environment. The persistent warmer sea temperatures stress the kelp forests to the point that growth and reproduction have slowed dramatically and caused damage to remaining fronds and tissue.

But perhaps the most critical effect is that the purple urchin populations now thrive without their primary predators, and are left to graze the kelp unchecked. Purple urchins feed mostly on algae (like bull kelp) with beaks so strong that they can chew on everything from barnacles to calcified algae.

Along the north coast, purple urchins are now successfully outcompeting red urchins and abalone. The purple urchin population is now 60 times higher than normal. The areas that are now overrun by sea urchins with hardly any kelp left are referred to as “urchin barrens,” a type of ecosystem largely devoid of the biodiversity that used to flourish there. Due to this abrupt change, the seafloor now looks more like an underwater desert dominated by sea urchins, with little else alive.

“To address the impacts of the massive marine heat wave and kelp deforestation on the north coast we are going to need to shift our priorities and resources and come up with creative solutions,” says Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett, a CDFW senior environmental scientist specialist based out of the Bodega Bay field office in Sonoma County. “I am encouraged that so many people and organizations are coming together in the Kelp Ecosystem and Landscape Partnership for Research on Resilience (KELPRR) collaborative and the "Help the Kelp" Campaign to promote kelp restoration in support of our kelp forest ecosystems and the human communities that make their living from the ocean.”

These negative effects reach from the ocean to the shore. Red abalone have been severely impacted by the loss of kelp and thus lack of food, causing the abalone fishery to close until at least 2021. Sea birds and marine mammals are also feeling the effects. With fewer fish available, the birds do not have enough food to feed their chicks. Reports indicate that 80% of black oystercatcher chicks and 90% of the local cormorant chicks are failing to survive. Harbor seals and sea lions are also hungry and feeling the effects.

In an all-out effort to address this devastating ecosystem change, scientists, management agencies and citizen scientists are all joining together to do everything they can to help. Their strategy is to harvest the purple sea urchins by hand to remove them from invading all of the substrate where bull kelp resides. By doing this they hope to create a network of healthy kelp patches along the coast.

Work is underway to create kelp refuge sites in North Caspar Bay, Noyo Harbor and Albion. This urchin removal project is a massive undertaking. Scientists hope also to try to develop commercial uses of the purple urchins, thus ensuring long-term sustainable harvesting.

Watermen's Alliance, a union of spearfishing clubs throughout the state, is coordinating urchin removal events this summer along the Sonoma and Mendocino coast using recreational divers wishing to assist with the purple sea urchin removals.

Next up will be the July 27-28 Purple Urchin Removal Event on Noyo Beach in Fort Bragg. They will need as many free divers and scuba divers as possible to participate, as well as kayakers to ferry full collection bags from the divers to boats and empty bags back to the divers. Just bring your dive gear or kayak gear and a valid California fishing license if you will be a diver removing urchins.

If you dive, boat, kayak or are just interested in helping, please contact the Noyo Center for Marine Science or Josh Russo with Waterman’s Alliance at (707) 333-9575 for details.

For more information about how to get involved, and stay up to date on kelp recovery efforts, please visit the following links. There are many opportunities for involvement, whether you are a scuba diver, freediver or just a concerned community member!

  • ReefcheckCA - volunteer to help monitor coastal ecosystems
  • “Help the Kelp” Program - Noyo Center for Marine Science
  • Watermen’s Alliance - advocates for clean, productive and sustainable fisheries.
  • Urchinomics: Focused on development of a commercial market for the purple urchin

Please join us for the next installment of the Conservation Lecture Series, “The Perfect Storm: Multiple Climate Stressors Push Kelp Forest Beyond Tipping Point in Northern California” by Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett on Thursday, July 18 from 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. Dr. Rogers-Bennett will talk about the catastrophic decline of the kelp forests and the ecosystem it supports, including the red abalone and sea urchin fisheries, and the effects of climate stressors on northern California kelp forests. Register at www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Lectures.

This lecture will be held by webcast only. Members of the public can sign up using this registration link. For more information, please contact Whitney.Albright@wildlife.ca.gov or visit the Conservation Lecture Series website.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Unusual foraging behavior near Elk in Mendocino County: a large red abalone climbing a bare kelp stalk trying to reach fronds that are not there. (K. Joe)

Media Contact:
Carrie Wilson, (831) 649-7191

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • June 18, 2019

Three people in waders with long black rubber gloves. Man in middle wearing large gray backpack with tubing coming off back. All three are bent over holding long black rods in small streambed with fallen trees surrounding. Background is filled with trees and vegetation.
CDFW scientists rescuing juvenile Coho Salmon from isolated and drying pool habitats in Olds Creek, a tributary to the Noyo River in Mendocino County.

Three men in and alongside streambed.One man is in the water wearing a gray machine backpack while holding a long yellow rod with a round metal hoop at the end. Another man in the water is bent over holding a small net about the water. A third man crouches alongside the water on top of rocks peering into white bucket. Another white bucket is nearby.
CDFW crew relocating steelhead and Coho Salmon to a lower pool on East Weaver Creek in Trinity County in June of 2015.

Woman wearing purple plaid shirt and black pants holding large yellow and white rod against large boulder. Background is filled with large boulders and vegetation.
In July 2016, this usually perennial pool on Matilija Creek in the Ventura River watershed went dry, killing several juvenile steelhead.

One silver lining to emerge from the severe drought that impacted California earlier this decade was that it whetted an appetite to study the event and compile data designed to help fish and aquatic species better weather future droughts.

The state experienced one of the warmest, driest periods in recorded history during this five-year drought (2012 to 2016).

In Jan. 2014, then-Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought a state of emergency. His proclamation directed all state agencies to act to prepare for and mitigate drought-related effects on water supply and aquatic species. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) responded by enacting “drought stressor monitoring” on a statewide level, and recently released a summary report on that effort entitled link opens in new windowStatewide Drought Response: Stressor Monitoring (PDF).

In late 2016 to early 2017, drought conditions improved considerably in most of the state when winter storms delivered higher than average levels of rainfall. The report describes the results from a collaborative statewide monitoring effort carried out during the period of 2014 to 2017 by scientists from CDFW and other agencies.

The primary purpose was to collect information on the status of populations of fish and other aquatic species, their habitats, and the water quality in the streams in which they reside. The intent was to provide both the scientific community and the public with a better understanding of potential drought-related threats to vulnerable species, and measures taken by CDFW and other agencies to alleviate these threats. This information was also necessary to help CDFW make better-informed management decisions.

The knowledge and data gained in this effort will be used to guide both CDFW and other resource managers during future droughts.

“This was a monumental statewide monitoring effort in response to drought impacts,” said CDFW Environmental Program Manager Jonathan Nelson. “The Drought Stressor Monitoring” developed important baseline documentation of the environmental changes associated with the severe drought conditions, and how the changes affected aquatic habitats and fish populations throughout the state. It was vital to collect this baseline, so we would better understand how to respond both in the present and in the future by creating a boiler plate. This document summarizes the monitoring framework implemented from 2014 to early 2017, how these data informed management actions, and how these efforts will hopefully minimize the impacts on fish and aquatic species during future droughts.”

Overall, CDFW monitored habitat conditions for 17 aquatic species in 141 watersheds, spanning 28 counties. Key findings from the monitor efforts identified several patterns of drought-related ecosystem change throughout the state including 1) increased loss of stream connectivity; 2) degraded water quality, including reduced levels of oxygen and elevated water temperatures; 3) high elevation streams impacted by the formation of winter anchor ice; and 4) elevated instances of fish being stranded by low streamflow and adversely affected by poor water quality.

Drought stressor monitoring was integral to management actions and was particularly critical to the process of aquatic species rescue. Fish rescues were only undertaken after Drought Stressor Monitoring information showed that populations were at high risk of becoming locally extinct in the immediate future. CDFW scientists developed special criteria and guidelines to assess the threat of drought and when to initiate rescue operations. When suitable habitat was available, fish were relocated to nearby habitat within the same stream or watershed to ensure the genetic health of the population and to maintain local adaptations. In cases where habitat was not available, fish were relocated to nearby hatcheries for temporary holding.

Approximately $3 million was dedicated to this effort from then-Governor Brown and more than approximately 100 CDFW staff members contributed to the monitoring and report-summary efforts. CDFW’s Fisheries Branch spearheaded the compiling of the data and finalized the report in collaboration with staff in the department’s various regions.

link opens in new windowView the final report (PDF).

CDFW Photos.

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, OCEO Communications, (916) 322-8988
 

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • June 11, 2019

Lake with vegetation in foreground. Snowy mountains and green trees in background.
A long, wet winter has been good for Junction Reservoir and CDFW’s Kamloops rainbow trout that live there.

Dock on lake with small fishing boats. Mountainside with trees in background.
The June Lake Marina graciously offered up its net pens to CDFW’s Kamloops rainbow trout program when the drought forced CDFW to rescue its brood stock from a shrinking Junction Reservoir.

Two men in CDFW uniforms standing in concrete and metal structure in stream. One man is holding a large white net. Trees and patchy snow covered ground in background.
CDFW hatchery staffers Jimmy Sparks, left, and Drew Klingberg prepare to sex and sort Kamloops brood stock for later spawning, separating males from females as well as those females ready to spawn immediately versus those that need more time to ripen. The fish are returned to Junction Reservoir after spawning.

Person wearing blue gloves holding net with fish over metal basin with water.
The offspring from these Kamloops will be raised at CDFW’s Fish Springs Trout Hatchery and stocked by airplane as fingerlings into backcountry waters across the state approved for trout stocking.

Blue-gloved hands holding small fish over metal basin filled with water and fish.
Resplendent in their spring spawning colors, Kamloops rainbow are raised and bred for their hard-fighting ability and wild nature that allows them to thrive in California’s remote backcountry waters and provide a thrill for anglers who catch them.

Junction Reservoir in Mono County is CDFW’s brood lake for the Kamloops rainbow trout, a hard-fighting strain originally from the Kamloops region of British Columbia.

The 20-acre lake sits on a private cattle ranch off-limits to fishing. It provides a secluded setting for the brood stock, whose progeny are used almost exclusively for the aerial stocking of backcountry waters throughout the state.

“We try to keep them raised in a more wild condition so they do better in the wild,” said Hot Creek Trout Hatchery Manager Mike Escallier. “They are a really fun fish to catch. They jump a lot. They will jump 3 feet out of the water when you hook one.”

And Junction Reservoir has never looked better. This spring, the lake was filled to the brim after a long, cold, wet winter. Near the mouth of the lake’s one small inlet, Kamloops were staging for a spawning run, their feisty nature on full display in the clear waters, breaking the surface occasionally and fighting each other over territory.

Kamloops further up the inlet were blocked from moving upstream by a concrete and metal trap. That’s where CDFW’s hatchery staff collect and sort the fish each spring, spawning them manually to produce the offspring that will be deposited as fingerlings this summer by airplane into backcountry waters approved for stocking.

The entire scene is a welcome sight after California’s drought nearly collapsed CDFW’s backcountry fish-stocking program. During the darkest days of the drought, the small inlet feeding into Junction Reservoir dried up. Combined with the years-long shortage of rain and snow, Junction Reservoir withered to about half its size. In 2013, CDFW conducted an emergency fish rescue to save about 2,000 of the brood fish and its backcountry trout stocking program altogether.

The rescued fish were relocated to CDFW trout hatcheries and other nearby waters for safe-keeping. The owners of the June Lake Marina provided a major assist, offering up some of their net pens on June Lake to CDFW and its Kamloops at no charge. The June Lake net pens continue to hold some Kamloops, which CDFW spawns each spring until the program transitions back fully to Junction Reservoir and CDFW’s Fish Springs Trout Hatchery south of Big Pine where the baby Kamloops are raised.

CDFW returned brood fish to Junction Reservoir in the spring of 2017 following a wet winter and heavy snowpack. CDFW is rebuilding production toward its annual goal of collecting and fertilizing 1.4 million eggs. Some of the offspring are put back into Junction Reservoir to add genetic diversity and different age classes to the rebuilding brood population as no natural spawning occurs in the lake.

One benchmark hatchery managers and biologists are striving toward is the return of Kamloops to Crowley Lake, where more anglers will have a chance to enjoy them.

Before the drought wreaked havoc on CDFW’s Kamloops program, a portion of the Kamloops produced each year were allocated to Crowley Lake. While the backcountry trout are sterile – or “triploid” – the fish stocked into Crowley are “diploids” capable of spawning naturally.

“They spawn at different times than other strains of rainbow trout,” explained Escallier. “They give anglers fishing the creeks opportunity. They tend to be running up the creeks from Crowley right around the trout opener.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: The inlet to Junction Reservoir is blocked by a fish trap where CDFW hatchery employees catch fish in the spring for spawning.

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Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General