Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fish taxi swamped with work

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California is hauling 30 million young Chinook salmon hundreds of kilometres toward the Pacific Ocean in tanker trucks to save the fishing industry after a record drought left rivers too low for migration.

Three climate-controlled trucks, each bearing 130,000 silvery eight-centimetre smolts, left a federal hatchery 289 kilometres north of San Francisco this week for a sloshy, three-hour drive to San Pablo Bay, where they are held in netted pens to acclimate before release.

"Water conditions, because of the drought, are going to be horrible for the fish," said Harry Morse of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. "Depending on how far those fish have to go, the longer they must travel through the system, the higher the losses."

The fish taxi is the latest in a series of emergency steps that state and federal authorities are rushing into place as reservoirs ebb one-third below normal and farmers idle thousands of acres. Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a voluntary 20 per cent cut in water use and many areas have declared mandatory restrictions. More than 800 wildfires have broken out since Jan. 1, three times more than usual, state records show, and smog in Los Angeles is worse without winter rains to clear the air.

California's 38 million people endured the driest year on record last year. The most-populous state has only about a quarter of the average amount of water in mountain snow that melts in the spring to fill lakes and rivers.

The hatchery fish that typically migrate through the Sacramento River Delta to the sea are key to the state's $1.5-billion commercial and recreational fishing industry, the Nature Conservancy said. Fish released now will be part of the population that can be harvested in a few years.

The lack of rainfall means the Sacramento River will prove too shallow and too warm for the tiny fish to survive the 300 to 500 kilometres of river and tributaries some must navigate to reach the Pacific.

Convoys of four to seven trucks daily will make the trip from the federal hatchery for 22 days during the next 21/2 months. In all, 12 million juvenile fish will be taxied from there, along with 18 million raised in four state-owned hatcheries in June. When released from the pens, the tiny fish will migrate to the ocean and mature. They return to the rivers as adults to spawn.

The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation said last month it won't be able to deliver any of the water requested by farmers in California's Central Valley, the state's most productive agricultural region.

The Bureau of Reclamation supplies water to a million people and a third of the irrigated farmland in California through a 800-kilometres network of canals and tunnels.

The California Farm Water Coalition said farmers probably will fallow as much as 800,000 acres of land because of the lack of water at a cost of $7.5 billion.

 

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 D6

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