Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
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. This short video highlights these operations along the Sacramento River and into the Delta, including a smelt survey conducted by Environmental Scientist Felipe la Luz.
Surveying Ventura River in Ventura County
Snorkel survey in Hollow Tree Creek in Mendocino County
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:
To learn more about these specific projects, please download the IFP’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
California’s drought emergency was officially declared to be over last year, but its deleterious impact on fish habitat is still being felt in many parts of the state -- especially in arid parts of Southern California. In order to help offset these effects at one site in northern San Diego County, CDFW biologists and other staff recently toiled to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.
The Sweetwater River is a second-order stream located within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The underlying rock is granite, which, as it erodes, creates sand that accumulates in the low-gradient portion of the river. Previous surveys in the Sweetwater River revealed a lack of high-quality spawning habitat for the rainbow trout population, which was reduced by 70 to 80 percent during the recent drought.
Seeing an opportunity to restore habitat to this waterway, South Coast Region fisheries biologists came up with a plan to place suitable materials into Sweetwater for the rainbow trout to use for new spawning grounds. Beginning on March 20, CDFW Environmental Scientist Russell Barabe, scientific aids Joseph Stanovich and Ken Sankary and volunteer Mark Berlin worked in the hot sun and dry conditions to rehab the streambed. Using a nearby dry stream channel, the team shoveled hundreds of pounds of rocks and materials through mesh screens to remove fine sediment and sand and clean the rock, called cobbles, to make them ready for placement into Sweetwater River. All the rock had to be moved one bucket at a time and poured into pool tailouts (the downstream end of a pool where the water gradually shallows) to create spawning beds about three feet square for rainbow trout.
Though similar work has been done in northern California – specifically two larger-scale projects in the American and Sacramento rivers, which served as the inspiration for this project – it had never been done in this small a stream before.
This small but important project could increase the spawning success of a drought-reduced population in a stream with easy public access. If successful, this project could be used as a model for future habitat restoration activities in other small trout streams. The fisheries team’s work is an example of how our scientists put the mission of CDFW – to conserve California’s fish and wildlife resources for the use and enjoyment of the public – into action.
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW Scientists hauling buckets of rocks to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.
# # #
In the heart of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta lies a 3,000-acre flooded island called Franks Tract.
Before humans diked and drained Franks Tract to grow potatoes, grains, asparagus and corn, the island was part of a vast freshwater marsh. Breaches in levees flooded Franks Tract in 1937, and farmers never reclaimed the island. Franks Tract today is a nexus point of many delta uses, ranging from duck hunting and bass fishing to fresh water supply for California cities and farms.
But the island is also a hot spot for invasive plants and predatory fishes, as well as a conduit for saltwater intrusion into waterways used to convey freshwater supplies to cities and agriculture in the Delta and other parts of California. For these reasons, Franks Tract is considered a strong candidate for partial restoration.
“Franks Tract is a microcosm of many of the larger problems pervading the inner Delta, said Carl Wilcox, Delta policy advisor to the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Some native fishes are in serious decline, improving the quality of available habitat in the Delta and increasing resilience to drought and climate change could support their persistence and recovery.”
Various partners, led by CDFW, are proposing to restore about 1,000 acres of Franks Tract to tidal marsh. The proposed restoration is consistent with the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy, state goals for the Franks Tract State Recreation Area, and state water quality control plans for the San Francisco Estuary. The effort also aligns with the multi-agency Delta Conservation Framework and the Central Delta Corridor Partnership.
The proposed restoration could shrink waterweeds, grow fish food, create habitat for Delta smelt and other declining species, and prevent salinity intrusion into the south Delta. It may also improve recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.
Results of hydrodynamics modeling indicate the proposed restoration would provide more fresh water to the central Delta shielding regions upstream from ocean saltwater intrusion. A 2017 UC Davis survey documented year-round use of Franks Tract and surrounding channels by locals, visitors and researchers, and seasonal use by hunters, anglers and boaters. Many survey respondents were concerned about changes in access to the water and effects on the local economy and sport fishing, which is dependent on that access. The survey yielded useful information for the next, more detailed, planning and design round including a locally proposed alternative design.
“We will continue to work with stakeholders to not only address habitat and water quality priorities, but also enhance recreational and sport fishing opportunities,” Wilcox said.
A recently released report, Franks Tract Futures: Exploring Options for Multi-Benefit Restoration and Increased Resilience in the Central Delta Corridor, summarizes the technical studies and stakeholder input that’s been collected relative to the potential restoration of Franks Tract.
If approved for further development, the Franks Tract restoration proposal would enter a second phase of planning, design and environmental review with a target end date of December 2020.
For more than a century, CDFW’s Trout Hatchery and Stocking Program has been providing recreational fishing opportunities to anglers throughout California. Today, the trout hatchery program is composed of 13 hatcheries, which oversee 20 distinct fish production programs to produce 17 strains, species and subspecies of trout.
McCloud River Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss stonei) is the latest addition to the CDFW’s production and release efforts. McCloud River Redband Trout is a unique sub-species of rainbow trout endemic to the upper McCloud River area of Shasta and Siskiyou counties of northern California. This fish has beautiful coloration and unique adult characteristics – a pronounced crimson lateral stripe, adult parr marks, relatively large black dorsal spotting, yellow-white hues on the underbelly and white-tipped fins.
The new production and stocking program for McCloud River Redband Trout at Mt. Shasta Fish Hatchery will focus on the upper McCloud River, including McCloud Reservoir. Given that stocking will occur solely within the historic watershed of McCloud River Redband Trout, the program is distinguished by CDFW as a Heritage Trout Production Program. A Heritage Trout is defined as a species of trout native to California, in its native habitat and area. This type of fishery represents the most natural form of aquatic habitat, species and angling opportunity available. Many anglers seeking additional challenges and goals will specifically pursue heritage trout fisheries.
While modern genetics management and conservation hatchery methods are utilized in the McCloud River Redband program, the hatchery-produced fish are primarily for recreational angling and not for release to areas containing wild and genetically pure McCloud River Redband Trout in their natural habitat. This ensures that the most wild populations remain in their native habitat and can continue local adaptation without hatchery influence. CDFW expects the McCloud River Redband Trout program to reach full implementation by 2019-20. The McCloud River Redband program demonstrates CDFW’s progress and commitment to conservation efforts and fisheries management.
CDFW trout hatcheries will continue to produce and stock several strains and species of trout statewide to promote trout angling opportunities, and contribute to the conservation of California’s native species and sub-species of trout. One of the next priorities for the department’s trout hatchery program will commence in 2018, and focus on advancing the Kern River Rainbow Trout program at CDFWs’ Kern River Planting Base.
CDFW Fish and Wildlife Technician Beau Jones stocking McCloud River Redband Trout in August 2017. CDFW photos by hatchery staff.
Restoration project area. CDFW photo by Andrew Hughan.
Yellow and orange indicate restoration areas at the Ocean Ranch Unit of CDFW's Eel River Wildlife Area.
How does one best go about making an already bountiful and bucolic part of the Golden State even better? Sometimes, perhaps paradoxically, it pays to look to the past in order to be forward thinking in the present.
CDFW, Ducks Unlimited, and many partners have undertaken the Ocean Ranch Unit of the Eel River Wildlife Area Integrative Ecosystem Restoration Project Planning Process to enhance the estuarine and coastal dune ecosystem of the Ocean Ranch Unit in Humboldt County
The approximately 2,600-acre Eel River Wildlife Area was acquired to protect and enhance coastal wetland habitat, and was designated as a wildlife area by the California Fish and Game Commission in 1968. The initial decision to undertake an estuary restoration-planning project began more than a decade ago. After several years of monitoring to gather necessary data, Ducks Unlimited completed a feasibility study, funded by CDFW’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program and the California State Coastal Conservancy, in December 2015.
The primary goal is to restore and expand natural estuarine and dune ecosystem functions, including the recovery and enhancement of native species (including fish, invertebrates, wildlife and plants) and their habitats. These changes should also help mitigate current and future impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will likely result in saltwater inundation further upstream, which is expected to modify habitats (for example, the loss of tidal marsh migration inland) and the size and shape of the estuary.
The project has been a revelation for Michelle Gilroy, a CDFW district fisheries biologist who works primarily in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
“For the first time in my 30-year fisheries career, which began in the Eel River watershed, I am achieving a long-time goal of mine: To envision, develop and work through to completion, or near completion, a large restoration project,” said Gilroy. “This exciting project and the extraordinary team I am so very fortunate to work with is making that dream a reality – and in the Eel River estuary, one of California’s largest estuaries. It is definitely one of the highlights of my career.”
Improving the connectivity of tidal and freshwater habitats, and controlling or eradicating invasive plants, are key goals of the restoration project.
A feasibility study guiding the project analyzed the potential for expanding tidal functions within 475 of the 933 acres of the unit to aide in the recovery and enhancement of estuarine habitat and native species. Restoration of these essential habitats is vital to the recovery of anadromous salmonid populations in the Eel River, as estuaries provide critical nursery and rearing conditions for juveniles prior to ocean entry.
The unit is located within the Eel River estuary, a mile and a half north of the mouth of the Eel River and approximately four miles northwest of Loleta. The unit is comprised of a diverse set of habitats, including coastal dunes, riparian woodlands, tidal mudflats, tidal slough channels, salt marshes and managed freshwater marshes.
Prior to second-wave human settlements, this portion of the estuary, then inhabited by Native Americans, consisted primarily of salt-marsh habitat dotted with areas of spruce and hardwood forest, and native grasslands. An abundant fishery, which included the prized salmon, along with native plants, provided sustenance for the Wiyot people who lived around Humboldt Bay and the estuary. As Euro-Americans settled this region, however, they largely drove the Wiyot people off their traditional lands and began to repurpose portions of the environment.
By the end of the 1800s, most of the salt marsh and forestlands were drained and converted to farm and grazing land. This conversion of tidal marshes to pastures was done with purpose – but such perceived progress carried an ecological cost.
The construction of levees and tide gates to drain salt marsh increased sedimentation, flooding, and the amount and diversity of habitat and food supply for fish and wildlife declined throughout the estuary. This degraded the prior functioning, highly productive estuary ecosystem. In addition, invasive species now threaten the diversity or abundance of native species through competition for resources, predation, parasitism, interbreeding with native populations, transmitting diseases, or causing physical or chemical changes to the invaded habitat.
Despite these declines, the Eel River delta, which includes the Eel River Wildlife Area, today continues to provide vital habitat for many aquatic and terrestrial organisms, including state and federally threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species, and many state species of special concern. More than 40 species of mammals and 200 species of birds use the delta area and researchers have documented at least 45 fish species in the Eel River estuary alone.
The area provides essential spawning, nursery and feeding grounds to several commercially and recreationally important species, including Dungeness crab. Estuaries are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world and are one of the preferred habitats for young Dungeness crabs.
Dungeness crabs use estuaries as critical nursery habitat in their juvenile stages, as not only a refuge from predation – particularly in estuaries with structural habitat such as eelgrass – but also because of the abundance and diversity of prey provided by estuaries. Dungeness crabs are opportunistic feeders – clams, fish, isopods and amphipods are their preferred food sources, as well as other Dungeness crabs. Their predators include those larger crabs, octopuses, and fish, including salmon, lingcod and various rockfishes.
Wildlife, of course, is not the only form of life to reap the benefits of this region, as humans enjoy a range of outdoor activities, including fishing, bird-watching, boating, hiking and hunting.
The project is expected to begin in the summer of 2019.
CDFW photos and map
Top photo: CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Kirsten Ramey and Eric Ojerholm of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Partners, Funding and Staff
Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with CDFW staff, has recently secured project planning funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and initial project implementation funds from the NOAA Restoration Center. To complete the restoration design and environmental compliance process, this second phase of restoration planning will consist of a continued CDFW and Ducks Unlimited partnership, with additional assistance from several local consultants and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The TAC includes representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Coastal Commission, California State Coastal Conservancy, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Sea Grant, California Trout, Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, Humboldt State University, Redwood Region Audubon Society, private landowners, and the Wiyot Tribe. Additional project partners include AmeriCorps, Tom Origer and Associates, Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife and Wetlands Restoration Association, GHD Inc., H.T. Harvey and Associates, Moffatt and Nichol, Northern Hydrology Engineering, Pacific Coast Joint Venture, and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
CDFW staff who have served on the project management team include Michelle Gilroy, Allan Renger, Scott Monday, Kirsten Ramey, James Ray, Mark Smelser, Gordon Leppig, Michael van Hattem, Jennifer Olson, Linda Miller, Clare Golec, Charles Bartolotta, Robert Sullivan, Tony LaBanca, Mark Wheetley, Scott Downie, Adam Frimodig, Jeff Dayton, Mike Wallace, Vicki Frey, John Mello, and Karen Kovacs.
Working late, Mojave River hatchery staff apply FDA-certified epoxy coating to hatchery rearing ponds.
CDFW fish transportation truck at Fillmore Hatchery
Acting Mojave River Hatchery Manager Forest Williams at work
A hatchery crew releases trout into the Feather River
A fishy view of trout planting on the Feather River
The beginning of trout fishing season in Southern California is just around the corner, and CDFW biologists and hatchery staff are striving to maximize hatchery trout availability for the many anglers who will cast lines in coming weeks. Trout angling in lower-elevation waters of Southern California generally begins in November and continues through April, to correspond with colder water temperatures that can sustain stocked trout.
Precise temperatures are just one of the criteria that must be met before trout stocking begins. Currently, these conditions are approaching optimal levels, but CDFW is running about two weeks behind schedule due to unforeseen circumstances at Mojave River and Fillmore trout hatcheries, two of CDFW’s southernmost facilities.
The Mojave River Hatchery, built in 1947, raises and stocks a ten-year average of 340,000 pounds of catchable trout per year. Beginning in June of this year, extensive maintenance and facility upgrades necessitated turning off the water for a six-month period. While the completed upgrades will ultimately result in better and more efficient trout production for Southern California, the project ran about two months behind schedule. Water is scheduled to flow again at Mojave River Hatchery in late November and the hatchery will be populated with fingerling trout for fast growth. Mojave’s year-round water temperatures yield fast trout growth resulting in maximized yield in minimal time.
While the Mojave River Hatchery was closed, Fillmore Hatchery, built in 1941 on the Santa Clara River, experienced a significant loss of trout inventory intended for Southern California angling due to gas bubble disease. Gas bubble disease is a result of supersaturated gasses (oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide) present in well water pumped from a deep aquifer. While Fillmore Hatchery is equipped to aerate this water and make it suitable for trout, an unknown variable (possibly a drought-depleted and then recharged aquifer) overwhelmed that ability. In an average year, Fillmore Hatchery produces about 400,000 trout for lakes and streams in Southern California. To reduce fish losses from gas bubble disease in the last several weeks, catchable fish were stocked from Fillmore to appropriate waters, and some fish were transferred to other hatcheries. Ultimately, the gas bubble disease at Fillmore resulted in a loss of about 50 percent of inventory. While emergency measures taken by Fillmore staff and
CDFW fish pathologists resulted in better conditions and lower gas super-saturation, the hatchery must be depopulated so that the issue can be addressed entirely. As soon as all trout are removed, hatchery staff and scientists will increase the gas diffusion capability of aeration towers at Fillmore, in order to handle supersaturated well water for the short and long term.
The status of these two hatcheries presented a substantial problem for trout stocking in Southern California that was solved in part by hatcheries in Central and Northern California. These hatcheries have sufficient catchable size trout to supply Southern California’s approved waters immediately and in coming weeks. Thanks to strategic planning and trout production at a statewide level, Northern and Central California can supply fish to Southern California without impacting originally scheduled trout releases in their respective areas.
Trout stocking for Southern California waters will begin this week and hatchery trucks are on the move. Hatchery staff will work quickly to distribute trout to as many approved waters as possible. Trout stocking to Southern California will initially be lighter than usual, but will likely pick back up in 2018. As Mojave River Hatchery comes back online, fish transferred to that facility will be fed and reared to maximize daily growth. We anticipate another large batch of catchable trout available for Southern California toward early spring 2018.
Hatchery staff will be doing everything possible, statewide, to maximize trout production and releases to approved waters in the coming months. Staff work diligently for the angling public and appreciate their continued support.
The statewide planting schedule is updated in real time online.
CDFW photos. Top: Steelhead trout at Mokelumne River Hatchery
to receive Science Spotlight and Featured Scientist articles by email