The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recognized a CDFW senior environmental scientist for his role in the historic effort to return endangered winter-run Chinook salmon to the McCloud River for the first time since construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1940s.
Matt Johnson, CDFW’s fisheries supervisor for the winter-run Chinook salmon reintroduction pilot project, was given NOAA’s Partner in the Spotlight Award on Jan. 25, 2024. Johnson oversaw many of the project’s critical components including remote site incubation, trapping of juvenile winter-run and coordinating with project partners including the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.
“It was a surprise and an honor. I threw myself 100 percent into the project so I’m appreciative of the recognition. The project turned into a fascinating and unique opportunity to do something new and historic. It was all unexpected,” Johnson said.
The project launched in summer 2022 in response to drought conditions affecting Shasta reservoir and the lower Sacramento River downstream of Shasta reservoir. Multiple years of severe drought drastically reduced cold-water storage that endangered Chinook needed to live and spawn. CDFW, NOAA, Winnemem Wintu Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) partnered to move winter-run eggs upstream to the McCloud. The river offered favorable habitat including summer cold water conditions required for spawning but was inaccessible to fish because of the dam.
Partners initially relocated about 20,000 fertilized winter-run Chinook salmon eggs from USFWS’ Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Redding. The eggs were transported 80 plus miles to the banks of the McCloud where the species historically spawned prior to construction of the Shasta Dam. The eggs were then placed in specialized incubators. In early August, another 20,000 eggs were transferred to the incubators.
The eggs were released into the river as fry, which were then collected in rotary screw traps and fyke nets, which are devices used that safely capture small salmon. Once collected, the fry were transported downstream of Shasta Dam and successfully released into the Sacramento River so the fry could migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
“Matt and his CDFW colleagues truly went above and beyond to return winter-run Chinook salmon to their historical home in the McCloud River for the first time in over 80 years. It’s clear that this was not just a job for him – he cares deeply about these species, this river, and this ecosystem and he put his heart into bringing them back,” said Brian Ellrott, NOAA’s Central Valley Salmonid Recovery Coordinator.
“Matt is dedicated to ensuring that this historic winter-run salmon pilot project succeeds. He recognized the insight and history the Winnemem Wintu Tribe provided and embraced their contribution to the reintroduction of the McCloud winter-run salmon,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “Matt is humble and passionate about his profession and we’re proud that he is part of our CDFW family.”
Johnson added: “I couldn’t have done any of this without my team. We were a small but dedicated crew and we were fortunate to have support from management, NOAA, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, UC Davis and the Mount Shasta Fish Hatchery. Seeing an iconic California species returned to its historic habitat after a nearly 80-year absence was pretty incredible.”
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 215-3858