Endangered salmon will swim in the shadow of Mount Shasta for the first time in 80 years – Mail Tribune | WHs Answers

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem-Wintu tribe, visits the McCloud River in January. [Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS]

Chinook salmon have been unable to reach Northern California’s McCloud River since 1942, when construction of the Shasta Dam prevented the fish from swimming upstream and sealed off their spawning grounds in the cold mountain waters near Mount Shasta.

After 80 years, endangered Chinooks will soon be swimming in the river again in winter.

Federal and state wildlife officials collected about 20,000 winter-raised salmon eggs at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Redding and drove them three hours to a campsite on the banks of the McCloud River.

Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, who have long tried to bring salmon back to the river where their ancestors lived, held a ceremony when the eggs arrived in a cooler.

“That we did that is history for California,” said Caleen Sisk, the tribe’s chief and spiritual leader. “It’s a real blessing.”

During the ceremony, Sisk and others sang as two women carried the cooler containing the salmon eggs and led a procession around a bonfire, while several children followed.

“We ask that the river sustain these eggs,” Sisk said. “And we downplayed that song to give them a chance.”

For the Winnemem Wintu, salmon is at the heart of their cultural and spiritual traditions. They call the river Winnemem Waywacket, and it is the heart of their traditional homeland, which the tribe lost when the reservoir was filled.

“Whatever happens to the salmon, happens to us,” Sisk said.

She said the tribe offered prayers for the salmon’s survival. And the women and children welcomed the eggs, she said, to give them a “female mother vibration.”

Two biologists towed the cooler down a rocky slope to the riverbank and parked it next to specialized incubator tanks that circulated water from the river through the system.

Taylor Lipscomb, the hatchery manager, reached into the cooler and pulled out a cup of orange salmon eggs, then handed them to one of the children.

Each child participated by lowering a cupful of water and tipping it until the eggs fell out and settled on a metal grid.

As Sisk carried a cupful to the tank, she said she “spoke to the eggs about their ancestors,” the salmon that swam there long ago.

“And we’re just trying to give them the courage and the support,” she said, “that we’re going to be there for them and we’re going to do our best.”

Winter Chinook salmon are increasingly struggling to survive as global warming exacerbates drought conditions and extreme heat.

Last year, the water flowing out of the Shasta Dam got so warm that the Sacramento River became lethal to free-ranging salmon eggs during the winter. Most of the eggs and fry died. State biologists estimated that only 2.56% of the eggs hatched and survived to swim downstream, one of the lowest estimates for egg survival to fry.

State and federal officials have been working on plans to reintroduce the endangered fish into the McCloud River. They say this summer’s effort is not yet a full-fledged reintroduction, but rather an urgent response to help salmon in a third year of severe drought.

The idea is that if they move some eggs to cooler waters, they’ll have a better chance of surviving this summer.

Once the eggs hatch, the tiny salmon, called Fry, exits the incubator system through a tube and swims into the river.

Another shipment of 20,000 eggs will be delivered to riverside incubators in early August.

Biologists plan to use traps in the river to collect the juvenile salmon and transport them downstream of the dam. Once released into the Sacramento River, the fish can migrate to the Pacific Ocean.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe is participating in the effort along with officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tribal members and state wildlife personnel have camped by the incubators to monitor the eggs’ development.

Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, thanked the Winnemem Wintu tribe for their guidance, which he says helped shape the effort. In a statement, Bonham called the return of the eggs to the McCloud River “historic and healing.”

For years, the Winnemem-Wintu tribe has advocated an approach to salmon reintroduction that would involve developing a “swimming path” to allow fish to travel independently upstream and downstream around the Shasta Dam.

The tribe also wants to use salmon that once lived in the Sacramento River but were transplanted to New Zealand more than a century ago. The salmon thrive in the mountain rivers of New Zealand, and the Winnemem Wintu say those eggs should be brought back.

Until recently, Sisk said she was opposed to bringing fish raised at the hatchery into the McCloud River. But she said the eggs from the winter run now “urgently” need improved conditions, “or they will disappear”.

“I think that’s the first step,” Sisk said. “We have a working arrangement to work on bringing our New Zealand eggs back quietly. And we should be able to do that within three years.”

She said the tribe also still wants to develop a passageway for fish because they don’t want trucks constantly transporting the salmon to reach their spawning habitat.

For now, Sisk said she’s worried about McCloud’s non-native brown trout and Shasta Lake’s bass, both of which feed on baby salmon. She said she hopes the little Chinook in the McCloud can grow enough to give them a chance to survive.

Young salmon in the McCloud River allow scientists to monitor how the fish are doing in their historical habitat.

“It’s a glimmer of hope,” Sisk said. “It really is a dream come true.”

She said the effort came together quickly and she was stunned to see the children, including her 5-year-old granddaughter Maya, lay the eggs in the blue barrels.

“You have this connection now,” she said. “They won’t forget that for the rest of their lives.”

The eggs arrived at the start of the tribe’s seventh annual Run4Salmon, a 300-mile journey by foot, bike, horseback and boat that follows the salmon’s ancient trail from the McCloud River to San Francisco Bay.

On Friday, Sisk and others were on a first leg of the journey on Lake Shasta, some in a houseboat and others paddling dugout canoes and kayaks. She said attendees plan to paddle to Red Bluff, bike to Colusa, and then paddle to Sacramento in kayaks.

On July 31st they want to finish their journey like the salmon and reach the Pacific coast.

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