The tanker trucks arrive in a convoy of three at the banks of the Sacramento Delta, near the small river town of Rio Vista. The vehicles then back up to the river’s edge, ready to spew their contents into one of California’s most vital waterways.
A long white plastic tube is already tethered to the dock, waiting to link-up with the truck. The tube turns dark as the truck’s contents spill through it into the river. Suddenly the water churns as the delivery comes to life -- thousands of tiny, darting salmon smolt begin their journey to the ocean.
With California in the grip of a vicious drought, state and federal fishery managers have begun to truck infant salmon to the Delta, bypassing 275 miles of their normal migration from the Coleman federal fish hatchery in Redding.
“We’re trying to give them a jump start to get them past problem areas upstream,” said Stafford Lehr with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The drought has left water levels in the state’s tributaries low and warm, which stresses the tiny salmon. The lack of rain is also forcing state water managers to prematurely open some gates in the Delta, which would divert the migrating fish into other parts of the Delta. That left fishery managers with few alternatives.
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“If these fish migrated normally down through the river system, there’s a strong likelihood a lot of them would be drawn into the interior and south Delta," Lehr said. “We know that their chances of survival out to the ocean and adulthood are highly limited.”
Fishery managers expect to haul 30 million hatchery fish to the river over the next 10 weeks, equaling another 240 truckloads.
“If we were to release them at Coleman and they were all to perish on the trip,” said Bob Clark of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “we could be forced with no commercial or recreational fish in 2016.”
The potential collapse of the state's salmon fishing is a major concern for an industry still reeling from the closure of the 2008 salmon season, following low fish returns. The closure cost hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the state.
“This will affect 2016, 2017 which may have been a closed season,” said Victor Gonella, of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, who applaud the use of trucks to haul the fish down river. “There may not have been any fish.”
But scientists warn trucking the fish down river will make it nearly impossible for adult fish to find their way back to the place of their birth in a few years.
“The science bears out, when you truck fish you have higher straying rates,” said Howard Brown of N.O.A.A. “After the fish go out to the ocean and they return back to spawn, they’re a little lost. They don’t know exactly where to go back.”
But Brown said the drought has left state officials with no other alternative, other than to truck.
Clark said fishery managers are researching alternative methods of moving the salmon safely down river, including using nets on barges to haul them the entire length of their river migration, allowing them to mentally map their route – a process known as imprinting.
But with the drought bearing down, and alternatives years away, the tanker trucks continue to file into Rio Vista – offering a shortcut for thousands of needy travelers.