Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Kerstin Wasson is leading the Olympia oyster restoration at Elkhorn Slough. Kerstin Wasson photo.
Scientists are working hard so that a new generation of Olympia oysters may one day line the mudflats at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
Volunteers Ken Pollak and Celeste Stanik join Dr. Chela Zabin to improve the native oyster habitat at Elkhorn Slough. Kerstin Wasson photo.
Suspended gaper clam shells hang in aerated laboratory tanks, home to what scientists hope will be a new generation of Olympia oysters at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
Graduate student Dan Gossard, at CSU’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, shows off one of the clam shell “mobiles” on which the Olympia oyster larvae will attach when suspended in aerated tanks.
Kerstin Wasson points out Olympia oysters along the banks of the Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve in Monterey County.
For the first time in California history, scientists are turning to shellfish farming techniques to restore native oyster populations.
The groundbreaking research is taking place with Olympia oysters at CDFW’s Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Monterey County, in partnership with the California State University’s nearby Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and its new Center for Aquaculture.
Olympia oysters and other shellfish were once so abundant at Elkhorn Slough that Native Americans living there had multiple processing centers along the estuary’s banks to handle their harvest. Olympia oysters have disappeared altogether from many places along the California coast and their numbers at Elkhorn Slough have dwindled so low – estimated today at just a few thousand oysters – that scientists fear they may no longer be able to reproduce in the wild. Not since 2012, they say, have Elkhorn Slough’s wild oysters produced any offspring.
A combination of factors is believed to have caused the population drop over time, including poor water quality because of agricultural runoff from nearby farms and alterations to the landscape and tidal flow from generations of farming and other human activity prior to the area becoming protected in a series of conservation purchases beginning in 1971. An infusion of freshwater from last year’s rainy winter caused a severe oyster die-off and spurred biologists into action.
“This is an iconic species in our estuary in danger of disappearing,” said Kerstin Wasson, Research Coordinator at Elkhorn Slough, where she has worked for 17 years with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal partner in the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. “These oysters fed native people here for 7,000 years.”
In late August, dozens of Olympia oysters were gathered and brought to the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, where 20 spawned successfully. A few hundred thousand of their microscopic offspring are now swimming in large, circular laboratory tanks and attaching themselves to gaper clam shells suspended on fishing line from the top of the tanks. The clam shells bearing young oysters will be bound together into makeshift reefs and returned to Elkhorn Slough early in 2018 to bolster the native population.
The research is being led by a small group of scientists, including Wasson and graduate student Dan Gossard with funding provided by the Palo Alto-based Anthropocene Institute. These are uncharted waters for California scientists, however, and a major assist is coming from the aquaculture industry itself. Peter Hain of the Monterey Abalone Company has worked closely with the two researchers to set up the laboratory facility for the Olympia oysters and help with their care and feeding.
Due partly to their small size – an individual Olympia oyster is about the size of a 50-cent coin – and slow growth, Olympia oysters hold little appeal and little potential profit for most commercial oyster farmers who focus on larger Pacific varieties, many native to Japan. Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington State is the only known commercial producer of Olympia oysters.
Wasson welcomes interest and support from aquaculture and hopes growers might one day add the native oyster to their operations. She believes even a niche commercial market for Olympia oysters could have positive implications for wild populations, enhancing recruitment, broadening scientific knowledge and a general appreciation for the native mollusk by the public.
Other efforts to save wild oyster populations in California and elsewhere have focused on building jetty-like artificial reefs constructed from oyster shell contained in plastic mesh.
Wasson prefers that more natural materials be used as part of the oyster restoration efforts underway at Elkhorn Slough, creating small clusters of oysters rising above the mudflats.
“I want this place to look like it did 200 or even 2,000 years ago,” she said.
Top photo: A huge influx of fresh water during winter 2017 resulted in an Olympia oyster die-off and spurred biologists into action.
CDFW’s Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area serves two critical – but sometimes competing – needs.
The 16,670 acres of riparian and agricultural habitat in Yolo County provide a refuge and an all-you-can-eat buffet for migratory waterfowl and resident wildlife to the west of Sacramento and the increasingly urbanized surrounding communities.
The wildlife area is also a key cog in the Sacramento region’s flood control system. In wet years, the vast flood plain accommodates massive water diversions from the nearby Sacramento, Feather and Yuba river systems to prevent flooding in populated areas and to relieve pressure on strained river levees.
With the drought-busting rains and snow received last winter, the wildlife area resembled an inland ocean for the thousands of daily commuters traveling the Interstate-80 Yolo Causeway, which crosses the northern edge of the wildlife area. The floodwaters stretched as far as the eye could see, reaching depths of 20 feet in some places, and submerging almost every natural feature underneath. The consequences were dire for wildlife unable to escape.
Pheasants, deer, raccoons, and small rodents of all kinds were among the victims. Some were overcome by the rising water, some starved while waiting out the floodwaters in trees or isolated patches of high ground, others were picked off by predators stalking the water line for fleeing prey.
As a result, efforts are now underway to help the area’s wildlife survive future flooding. The Yolo County Resource Conservation District has secured almost $700,000 in Proposition 1 state water project funds to build two wildlife escape habitat corridors and a demonstration garden over the next four years. The project includes partnerships with CDFW, Yolo Basin Foundation, Center for Land-Based Learning, Putah Creek Council, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Point Blue Conservation Science.
The demonstration garden will serve as an educational component for visitors near the wildlife area’s entrance. Two other corridors in the southern end of the wildlife area will stretch more than 5 miles total and include 22 acres of native grass seeding for nesting and cover. The corridors will run parallel to the Putah Creek channel, which is the only existing natural escape route now on the refuge.
“These corridors are basically like wildlife roads,” said Jeffrey Stoddard, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area manager for CDFW.
The floodwaters advance slowly enough that even the smallest animals can escape, Stoddard explained, provided they head in the right direction and don’t get exposed to predators along the way.
“We have blocks of escape habitat now, but we will be creating connectivity, moving animals from the east side that is deeper to the west side that is higher ground,” he said.
The corridors will consist of a mix of flood-tolerant native shrubs, grasses and forbs that will provide escape routes to high ground, protection from predators, food, and good habitat year-round.
The corridor work began in June with Putah Creek Council student interns collecting wild rose, red stem dogwood and coyote brush clippings for propagating and use as plant stock for the wildlife corridors.
Photos courtesy of CDFW, the Putah Creek Council and the Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Students pictured are interns from the Putah Creek Council’s One Creek Restoration Internship program.
“We’re getting more accurate and precise numbers for harvest than we’ve ever had before, which is critical for calculating the tag quota for the next year and conserving our deer populations for the future,” said Stuart Itoga, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW and the state’s deer program coordinator.
Until recently, accurate deer harvest data had proved elusive. Prior to 2015, only successful California deer hunters had to report their take and only about 30 percent of those actually complied. CDFW supplemented the harvest data with numbers collected from game processing facilities, an inefficient process that still left an incomplete picture.
“It’s Wildlife Management 101,” Itoga said. “You have to know what your population is, what’s coming in and what’s going out. We needed to have better numbers.”
Following the mandatory reporting requirement in 2015, submittal rates for deer tag harvest reports jumped to 50 percent. In 2016, a $21.60 non-reporting penalty took effect, which applies to the purchase of future tags, and boosted reporting to the all-time high.
Mandatory deer tag reporting data is just one of a number of new tools that has CDFW deer biologists excited about their ability to better assess California’s deer herds.
An innovative DNA study of deer feces promises to give biologists new information about the size and characteristics of the state’s deer population.
CDFW has also greatly expanded the use of deer tracking collars, thanks to improved technology. Since 2016, CDFW has affixed the relatively lightweight, remotely programmable, GPS tracking devices on 350 deer to learn more about their preferred habitat, in-state and out-of-state migration routes and sources of mortality other than hunting. Advanced camera technology also promises to improve the data collected from CDFW’s aerial and ground-based population surveys. A new computer model is being developed to incorporate all of these new data sources into more sophisticated, accurate and precise deer population estimates.
“It’s really an exciting time to be doing this type of work,” Itoga said. “We’ve always used the best available science, but with technology moving at the pace it’s moving now, we have tools available to us now that we didn’t have even five years ago.”
Management changes can happen more quickly as a result. For the upcoming 2017 deer hunting seasons, for example, deer tag quotas were cut in half in three highly desirable, Eastern Sierra X Zones – X9a, X9b and X12 – as a result of new data and field work that showed that migratory deer in these areas suffered from the long, intense winter.
“Winter survival was poor,” Itoga said. “Our hope is that if we reduce the harvest this year, the populations will have a chance to rebound and increase next year.”
A California red-legged frog sits motionless at the edge of McClure pond at the Sparling Ranch Conservation Bank. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS
McClure pond is one of the most productive California red-legged frog ponds at the Sparling Ranch Conservation Bank. Like many of those on Sparling Ranch, it was named after the family who homesteaded in site in the late 1800s. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS
Since the mid-1980s, California has been using a system of conservation and mitigation banking to protect valuable natural resources and critical habitat for fish, wildlife and plants. These banks are generally large, connected, ecologically meaningful areas of preserved, restored, enhanced or constructed habitat (for example, wetlands) that are set aside for the express purpose of providing mitigation for project impacts. Conservation banks provide mitigation for impacts to listed species and habitats, while wetland mitigation banks primarily provide mitigation for wetland impacts. Together, they serve to prevent inadequate, fragmented reserves that can result when mitigation projects are carried out individually.
Banks work by establishing credits for sensitive species or habitats found on a given site. These credits can then be sold to developers or other project proponents who need to meet permitting requirements or are otherwise required to compensate for environmental impacts. For those parties needing to mitigate for project impacts, banks serve to streamline the regulatory process by providing a pre-established mitigation site that the regulating state and federal agencies have already confirmed will provide adequate and appropriate mitigation for certain habitats or species. By mitigating at a bank, project proponents can avoid the time and cost of searching for a suitable mitigation site and protecting it in perpetuity themselves.
In order for the banking system to be effective, state and federal agencies must work closely together to align processes and practices. Since 1993, CDFW has been participating in the planning, review, approval, establishment, monitoring and oversight of 81 banks statewide. Other agencies that typically participate in the regulation and approval of conservation banks include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA NMFS).
To read more about one of these successful partnerships, please visit USFWS’ newsroom.
Learn more about CDFW’s Conservation and Mitigation Banking program, on our website.
All photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Top photo: A herd of cattle graze atop a hillside at Sparling Ranch near Hollister, Calif. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS.
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
Two doves in a backyard wire trap
A bander holds out a dove’s wing to see which feather has most recently molted, which will provide information about the age of the bird.
A volunteer trapper prepares to release a banded female.
If you have an interest in migratory upland birds – as a hunter, a birdwatcher or just a citizen scientist – there’s a unique volunteer opportunity coming up that will allow you to work hands-on with wildlife, while helping the California Department of Fish and Wildlife collect critical research data that will become part of a national database.
Approved volunteers will be specifically trained over the next few months and permitted to capture mourning doves for a seven-week period, from July 1 through August 20, 2018. Banders attach a metal leg band to each bird, determine the bird’s age and sex , and record the data before releasing the bird. Banders can choose their own trapping sites, which in many cases are on their own property.
CDFW is particularly in need of volunteers in North Coast and Bishop areas, but as this is a statewide program, volunteers from other areas may be able to participate as well.
“It’s a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to get hands-on experience and play an important role in the management of California’s number one game bird,” explains Karen Fothergill, an environmental scientist and coordinator of CDFW’s Mourning Dove Banding Program.
Several levels of participation are possible, but successful completion of a four-hour training session is mandatory for all participants. Trained volunteers will band in their local areas, ending 10 days prior to the start of the hunting season for mourning doves.
The imprinted bands that are attached to birds’ legs are an important tool used by wildlife managers to help them evaluate mourning dove populations. Band recovery data is incorporated into the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory database and used by wildlife managers to monitor the status of mourning dove populations.
Together, the volunteer force will band approximately 4,000 mourning doves around the state. This number – which is necessary for accurate population modeling – has only been achieved with the use of volunteers.
Volunteer training opportunities will be held around the state, depending on how many potential volunteers show interest in participating, and where those individuals are located. Fothergill said that she expects to hold at least four training opportunities in the month of May. For scheduling purposes, potential volunteers are asked to contact Fothergill no later than April 13.
Volunteers are not compensated, but all supplies will be loaned at no charge.
Program participants must be over 18 and have good organizational skills and a commitment to wildlife preservation. The trapping and banding work is typically done in the morning and evening, but volunteers who can only work limited hours or on certain days can still be utilized and are welcome. For more detailed information about the program or to reserve a space at a training session, please contact Karen Fothergill at (916) 716-1461 or Karen.Fothergill@wildlife.ca.gov.
Top Photo: Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)
A tiny transponder is placed inside the body cavity of each female salmon. When the fish lay their eggs, the transponders will be expelled, providing scientists with information on when, where and how successful each spawning female is.
After the salmon are tagged, they are returned to a holding pond while the anesthetic wears off.
CDFW scientists electronically identify and perform an ultrasound on each fish in order to assess their pre-spawning condition.
Each salmon in the project received a tiny identity tag that is entered into a database. The computerized system allows biologists to follow individual fish throughout their life cycle.
A team of scientists read, evaluate and record data for each individual salmon.
On Thursday, May 18, fisheries biologists implanted acoustic transponders into 60 endangered adult spring-run Chinook salmon. The transponders will track their movements and help determine spawning success later this season. The salmon will be released to spawn naturally in the San Joaquin River near Friant over the next three months.
Spring-run Chinook have been absent from the river for many decades. Reintroduction is one of multiple strategies biologists are using to reestablish naturally spawning runs of these fish as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project. The project – which is jointly coordinated by CDFW, the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service – is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River and restore a self-sustaining Chinook fishery while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from restoration flows.
A total of 120 salmon will be implanted and released at two different times. Biologists will track the fish from each release to determine which is most successful. This release strategy provides the hatchery-raised salmon the opportunity to select their own mates, construct redds (a spawning nest in the stream gravel) and spawn naturally.
CDFW photos by Harry Morse
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