Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
For generations, anglers in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains fished for one of the most cherished fish in the west, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). These native beauties are prized for their size, with some growing as large as 40 pounds in the Tahoe Basin.
Sightings of these brown and red native fish have been documented as far back as 1853. But as the population of the state grew, especially during the Gold Rush, the fish were nearly wiped out by mining, development, dams, water diversion and other human factors.
Today, LCT are listed under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, and CDFW has increased its commitment to angling enthusiasts by providing more opportunity to catch this historic fish. This effort includes greatly expanding the number of waters and fish planted in recent years.
Every spring, staff from the American River Hatchery in Gold River make the 100-mile journey from the hatchery to the tiny spawning buildings on the shore of Heenan Lake. This pristine body of water is surrounded by granite peaks in remote Alpine County. It is usually not accessible in the winter, cut off by the snowpack, and is only open to catch and release fishing for six weeks a year. It is also the state’s only source of LCT broodstock (groups of mature fish used as the source for eggs and reproduction). Ultimately, the 800,000 eggs spawned at Heenan Lake each year support recreational angling opportunities at multiple locations in the eastern Sierras.
The staff will make the journey up and down the mountain several times over several weeks to spawn the eggs on site. The process involves carefully bathing the eggs in iodine and suspending them in cheesecloth in aluminum jars about two feet tall, before making the journey back to Sacramento or to other state hatcheries. Some of the eggs head to destinations as far away as Filmore Hatchery in Ventura County.
Once at the hatcheries, the eggs are placed in “hatching jars,” where chilled, UV-filtered river water circulates over them continuously. After two to three weeks, the eyes of the baby fish are visible inside the eggs. These “eyed” eggs will be addled—a process in which the eggs are siphoned through a tube in order to shake them up. This causes the infertile, diseased or dead eggs to turn white, allowing hatchery technicians to easily identify, pick out and discard them. After the fry hatch, they are moved to deep tanks in the hatchery building, where they will spend approximately five months growing before being moved outdoors to large round tanks.
The fish will be planted as fingerlings or sub-catchables (fish that weigh 1/16th-1/6th of a pound) into various high-mountain waterways on the east side of the Sierras. At the time of release, they are still too small to be caught, but they will quickly grow to be trophy-sized fish for the state’s anglers who want to make the journey into the high altitudes.
CDFW Scientific Aide Aimee Taylor prepares electrofisher to harmlessly catch Paiute cutthroat trout in North Fork Cottonwood Creek.
The extremely rare Paiute cutthroat trout (PCT). Photo by William Somer for CDFW.
Aimee Taylor and Senior Environmental Scientist Jeff Weaver electrofish PCT in North Fork Cottonwood Creek.
Jeff Weaver, USFWS Biologist Chad Mellison and others take genetic samples from the fish.
The project’s lead biologist, Bill Somer, and Chad Mellison transfer the trout from CDFW’s tank truck to cans for the ride to Silver King Creek, by pack mule.
The CDFW-FWS-USFS team packs pure PCT in milk cans through the Silver King drainage.
Bill Somer releases Paiute cutthroat trout into Silver King Creek, above Llewellyn Falls.
Team members measured each Paiute cutthroat trout caught at White Mountain.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) have returned a rare trout species to its home water after a 71-year absence.
In 1946, poachers were decimating the Paiute Cutthroat Trout (PCT), a species whose native range was limited to a nine-mile section of Silver King Creek (Alpine County). To ensure the species’ survival, the USFS and Eastern Packers Association translocated 401 of these fish to North Fork Cottonwood Creek in Inyo County’s White Mountains. This population has persisted in isolation from other forms of trout and has recently provided important restoration options for resource managers. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of concerned biologists seven decades ago.
The conservation history of this rare trout is complex. The initial “conservation” measure was entirely inadvertent. In the early 1900s, Basque sheepherders in the area caught and transported PCT into the previously fishless portion of Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls. This early within-basin transfer was the salvation of the PCT, since non-native species were later introduced below the falls. The falls prevented non-natives from reaching the habitat above and protected PCT from hybridization and competition.
The FWS listed PCT as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 – the precursor to the federal Endangered Species Act (1973). The species was down-listed to threatened status in 1975, in order to facilitate management and restoration and to allow regulated angling. In 1994, CDFW, FWS and USFS began developing a restoration plan to remove non-native fishes from Silver King Creek and return the PCT to its native waters. From 2013 to 2015, the partner agencies treated 11 stream miles of Silver King Creek and three tributaries below Llewellyn Falls with a fish toxicant, rotenone, to remove all non-native fish species.
The PCT population in Upper Fish Valley, an area of Silver King Creek above the falls, has been considered a primary source for restocking the recovery area. Unfortunately, that population was heavily impacted by the extreme 2012-2016 drought. During this extended drought, lack of snow cover resulted in the stream freezing almost solid during cold snaps. In order to offset the resulting population decline, the partner agencies caught 86 pure PCT in North Fork Cottonwood Creek. On August 23, 2017, the fish were planted back into Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls.
Agency staff met in the White Mountain Wilderness (Inyo National Forest) and, along with volunteers and pack mules, hiked from their campsite to North Fork Cottonwood Creek. There, the team used electrofishers to retrieve descendants of the fish moved back in 1946. The fish were hauled out by mule, put in a specialized transport truck, and driven approximately 100 miles to the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. Another mule team then hauled them back to Silver King Creek. Thanks to careful handling by the collection and transport teams, every fish survived the trip home.
Due to its limited habitat, the Paiute Cutthroat Trout has been called the rarest, but most recoverable, form of trout in the United States. With the most recent success of this partnership, and due in large part to the foresight of conservationists in the past, the future looks bright for this beautiful native salmonid.
Learn more on the Paiute cutthroat trout web page.
Photos by Joe Barker, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, except as noted.
Liz Vandentoorn, from the Inyo National Forest Region 5 Center of Excellence, leads a pack mule team and state and federal scientists to North Fork Cottonwood Creek to capture Paiute cutthroat trout and return them to Silver King Creek.
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.
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.
See related VIDEO.
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
It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.
Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.
Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.
As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.
“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”
CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.
The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.
During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.
“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.
The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.
Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.
Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.
“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”
The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.
Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.
“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”
CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog
The latest issue of California Fish and Game, 103-3, makes a significant contribution to the body of research related to longfin smelt in California. A paper titled, “Historic and contemporary distribution of Longfin Smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) along the California coast (PDF)” analyzes and presents observation data for this species from a variety of published and unpublished sources dating from 1889 to 2016. This anadromous fish, which is listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, has been documented in a diverse range of habitats, including coastal lagoons, bays, estuaries, sloughs, tidal freshwater streams and nearshore habitats. In addition to providing a comprehensive look at the existing information available for longfin smelt along the California coast, this paper identifies additional information needed to improve management and enhance recovery of the species within the state.
In “Distribution and derivation of dabbling duck harvests in the Pacific Flyway (PDF),” the authors look at abundance, banding and harvest data from throughout the Pacific Flyway and other important source areas in the Central Flyway to estimate the distribution and derivation of Pacific Flyway dabbling duck harvests during 1966−2013. The Pacific Flyway has long been considered an important wintering area for dabbling ducks. Better knowledge of the origins of these birds could assist in both harvest and habitat management.
The authors of “Distribution of Amargosa River pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis amargosae) in Death Valley National Park, CA (PDF)” endured harsh environmental conditions to document the occurrence of Amargosa River pupfish along the lower Amargosa River drainage where the species has not been previously documented. The downstream-most location of Amargosa pupfish captured in this study extends the previously recorded geographic range approximately 49 river km. The findings not only determine the distribution of Amargosa River pupfish within Death Valley National Park, but will help identify suitable locations at which to establish long-term monitoring sites.
California Fish and Game has published high-quality, peer-reviewed science for the past 103 years, making important contributions to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife.
Cover photo courtesy of Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences.
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