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.
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
Does the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), a freshwater species native to the Pacific Coast, hold secrets to survive climate change and adapt to rising sea levels? CDFW biologists want to know and have partnered with UC Davis and the Department of Water Resources to conduct a long-term study in Solano County’s Suisun Marsh to better understand the aquatic reptiles.
Officially, the Western pond turtle is a Species of Special Concern in California because of declining populations brought about by habitat loss, degradation and competition from that pet store favorite – the non-native, red-eared slider. The pet slider turtles are often released into the environment by their owners after outgrowing or outliving their welcome. They also outgrow and out-compete the medium-sized western pond turtles for food and critical basking spots. Western pond turtle populations are faring even worse in Oregon and Washington.
And yet in the Suisun Marsh, with its brackish water and high salinity, the Western pond turtle appears to be thriving. The Suisun Marsh, ironically, may now be home to one of the strongest populations of Western pond turtles on the West Coast.
“It’s just a really unique population in a place where we didn’t expect to see a freshwater species,” said Mickey Agha, the UC Davis Ph.D. student leading the university’s turtle research with Dr. Brian Todd, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.
As if to underscore the point, researchers this summer collected a turtle with a barnacle attached to its shell – a testament to the marine-like environment to which the Suisun Marsh turtles have adapted.
Researchers also have been impressed with the age, health and size of the individual turtles. At 1 ½ to 2 pounds and with an upper shell that stretches up to 8 inches in length, researchers are discovering some of the largest Western pond turtles ever recorded in California.
“Looking at the ones we’ve collected, we’re seeing a lot of healthy turtles in good body condition,” said Environmental Scientist Melissa Riley, who is leading CDFW’s efforts.
The research began in the summer of 2016 with scientists trying to get a basic sense of turtle population numbers. The turtles are trapped in baited, floating hoop nets, their size, weight and age recorded. Before being released, each turtle is marked by filing a unique pattern of small notches along the edges of the upper shell. More than 125 turtles have been recorded in the project’s database.
Turtle trapping is taking place on three sites at the Suisun Marsh in and around the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Biologists are particularly interested in turtles at the Hill Slough Wildlife Area along Grizzly Island Road as 500 acres there will soon be restored to tidal marshland. Biologists plan to affix tiny, solar-powered, GPS tracking devices to some of the turtles to study their movements and see how they respond to the increasingly saltwater environment at Hill Slough and other parts of the marsh.
“That’s one of the many questions we have,” Agha said. “If sea level rise occurs, what happens to these turtles?”
Volunteers from the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep install the second of three 2,300-gallon water tanks to provide water for wildlife in the Southern California desert.
SCBS volunteer Glenn Sudmeier and Steve Marschke install plumbing fixtures for the sheep drinker at the Cady Mountains guzzler project in San Bernardino County.
Pipes bolted into the rocks coming from a catch pond going to the original guzzler installed in the desert.
Plumbing pipes leading from the catch ponds to the storage tanks at the 40-year-old Cady # 1.
The completed project: Drinkers are covered by fiberglass simulated rocks that shade the water to slow evaporation and to stop algae growth in the opening of the drinker.
Entire scope of the project, with the 150-foot-long catch field in the background that feeds water to the underground tanks.
One of the most elusive species in California is the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) that live in the dry, desert mountains of southeastern California. Desert bighorn are far from fragile – males are about five feet long and can weigh up to 200 pounds, while the females weigh up to about 150. Despite their size, their keen eyesight and the agility to escape predators up steep rocky slopes, they still face many threats, including disease, human development, expansion and – more recently—a changing climate. Water is critical to their survival in this extreme environment.
The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS), an all-volunteer organization in Southern California, has been working since 1964 for the conservation and management of the desert bighorn sheep. Over the last 40 years, SCBS and CDFW have been installing drinking systems (also called guzzlers) across the sheep’s habitat to help counteract these challenges. Now the populations rely on these water sources to survive and there is a responsibility to keep them functional and maintained.
In September 2017, SCBS rallied the volunteers to install a new drinking system to provide sheep and other animals life-supporting water in the hot summers. The project took place in the desert east of Barstow, and began with the removal and replacement of the very first guzzler ever installed in California.
The old system had two cement catch ponds, each similar to a small swimming pool lined with plastic. The catch ponds collected rain water and funneled it though pipes and valves to three tanks, where it was stored and fed to a small stainless steel drinker box. Due to its age and condition, after being exposed to the desert air and sun for more than 40 years, the system needed constant maintenance, and – more importantly – SCBS members had to haul hundreds of gallons of water across the desert each summer in order to keep the tanks full during the hottest parts of the year.
To improve efficiency and reduce the impact on the habitat, engineers and scientists devised a new approach to the design and installation of the new system. They created a 150-foot-long catch field, laying down three sections of overlapping matting, like tiles on a roof. The mats were then covered with rocks to help it blend into the surrounding area. The mats are made of non-absorbent material that funnels water down a slope where it’s collected and fed into two 2,300-gallon plastic tanks buried in the ground.
SCBS members did all the work to design and engineer the site, dig out the large holes to bury the tanks and install the plumbing and other equipment, including a solar powered satellite telemetry system that will allow scientists to monitor the water levels, ambient temperatures, water flow and other measurements at the remote site.
After four days of morning-to-night labor, the project was completed and the site returned to its near-natural state. Most of the old system was removed with one tank still operating to give the sheep time to find the new water source about 1,000 feet away. The new system is more efficient, requires very little maintenance, and has a higher storage capacity that should eliminate water hauling efforts. The tanks provide enough water for all wildlife in the area, not just the sheep, and they are less visually intrusive from both land and the air, blending well into the desert surroundings.
All this equipment comes at a cost and this construction was paid for with a grant from the CDFW Big Game Management Account (BGMA) that provides money to fund projects that benefit big-game populations and the habitats upon which they depend.
The careful planning and work done will provide a stable and reliable water source for the sheep and other wildlife in this area for decades to come.
To watch volunteers install the new drinking system, watch a video on the CDFW YouTube channel.
Photos of installation courtesy of SCBS. CDFW photos of finished project by Andrew Hughan.
About 10 environmental scientists from CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) participated in a large-scale oil spill drill along the Feather River on March 21. The drill was intended to help wildlife response teams prepare for a potential train derailment. OSPR has a long history of oil spill response in marine environments but recently expanded its scope statewide to include inland waters. This Feather River exercise was the first time a substantial wildlife response drill has been held inland, testing responders’ abilities to resolve many operational and technical issues presented by a river spill.
Whereas marine spills typically require rescue of seabirds and occasionally marine mammals, the kinds of animals potentially affected by inland spills are quite different and varied, potentially including raptors, songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, foxes, and other mammals. The need to capture and care for these species during an oil spill presents unique challenges for scientist responders. The goal is to have the necessary protocols in place and practiced.
The drill was put on by the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), an organization funded by OSPR and managed by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to provide best achievable care of oiled wildlife. The OWCN currently maintains a network of 40 wildlife rehabilitation organizations, trained and ready to respond to oil spills anywhere in the state. Sixteen of these organizations participated in Tuesday’s drill, including two local organizations, Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation and North Valley Animal Disaster Group.
In addition to practicing wildlife response activities, the drill provided the opportunity to test a new Geographic Response Plan (GRP) for the Feather River. GRPs identify the location and nature of resources at risk in the event of a spill, and outline appropriate tactical response strategies to minimize oiling and other injury. During a real spill, OSPR environmental scientists serve as subject-matter experts who help ensure that the GRP is implemented appropriately. A simulated situation like this one gives them a valuable opportunity to conduct a realistic ‘dry run,’ as well as to analyze elements of the GRP and make adjustments as necessary.
To learn more about OSPR, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR.
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