Science Spotlight

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  • 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
  • April 20, 2018

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in the bed of a truck shoveling rocks

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in stream pouring rocks into stream from large bucket

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform crouching in stream looking at the water

Stream with rocks lining the streambed

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.

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Categories: General
  • August 23, 2017

a California golden trout in a creek
a California golden trout in a blue net
two men carrying buckets in a vast, green mountain meadow
Three men cross a high desert on horseback under a bright blue sky
fingerling trout in a bucket with air hoses in it

Two men carry buckets through a wide valley surrounded by mountains

This summer marked the end of an incredible journey for four dozen of California’s designated state freshwater fish, the golden trout, as they returned home after 10 months away. The fish traveled more than 500 miles in tanks and buckets, by hand and by mule, en route to their native waters 9,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada range.

The journey began last fall after CDFW scientists observed that ongoing drought conditions were severely impacting the rare trout’s mountainous habitat. A decision was made to rescue 52 fish – a representative population that could repopulate the stream and save the species if drought conditions worsened.

Golden trout are one of California’s most iconic trout species. They are native to only two stream systems in the southeast Sierra Nevada – Golden Trout Creek, and the South Fork Kern River in Tulare County. Volcanic Creek, which is home to the rescued fish, connects with Golden Trout Creek during runoff and high-water level years.

The journey began in September 2016, when fisheries biologists made the two-day trek into the mountains to gather the trout. The captured fish were transported to the American River Trout Hatchery near Sacramento, where technicians monitored them, often around the clock. After nine months at the hatchery, the fish were ready to start the long trek back to their home waters. Crew members transferred the fish from the hatchery to a fish tanker truck and hauled them more than seven hours overnight to the trailhead at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the southern Sierra.

The crew met up with a CDFW team that would escort the fish on horseback, 16 miles into the Inyo National Forest. Federal laws forbids motorized vehicles on wilderness land, which left the team no option but to transport the fish by mule train in fish cans.

The operation took tremendous teamwork from multiple divisions in CDFW and the National Forest Service. Ultimately, the CDFW team successfully returned 48 fish to their natural element. Four died in captivity over the winter. CDFW officials consider that a normal mortality rate. Scientists remain optimistic that these iconic fish will continue to thrive and perhaps even be on-track for a brighter future.

link opens in new windowSee related VIDEO.

Categories: General