The last desperate attempt to save wild salmon

But outside the walls of Warm Springs, so much is beyond the control of the recovery team. By nature, salmon cross boundaries and boundaries, exposing them to a myriad of threats. In rivers, fish face warmer water, drought, wildfires, landslides, predators and pollution; at sea, more predators, fish and competition for food. By amplifying these hazards, climate change is placing increasing demands on fish and their keepers to adapt. For the program to succeed, many things have to go right.

“We’ve never really had great years of returns, but we’ve also never really had everything lined up like ocean conditions, water, our production here,” White says. “It’s always something.”

Even before the Summer of 2020, the people working to bring back Russian River Coho had seen a lot of climate chaos. The series of major wildfires they endured over the past five years fade together in memory. Most Sea Grant employees have been evacuated from the area at least once. Obedzinski has had a fire within 50 meters of her home and once wrote a project report from temporary accommodations with family. Late in 2019, as the Kincade Fire approached the town of Windsor, where the Sea Grant program is based, Ruiz took an Uber into the office to back up critical data in case the building was damaged. burn down. Two years earlier, another team member lost his childhood home. From the end of June to November, everyone is on edge.

In mid-August 2020, temperatures rose to almost 40 °C. Nearly 90 days had passed with no significant rain and the Sea Grant office received regular reports from the electric company warning of potential outages to prevent fires caused by wind damage to power lines. On August 17, dry lightning ignited the Walbridge Fire, which spread southeast into the Mill Creek Valley, northeast to Lake Sonoma and Warm Springs, and south into protected forests. Within two days, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. At the edge of the evacuation zone, the hatchery moved to a skeleton crew, who did the essential work to keep the coho alive.

“It was a big eye-opener,” says White. Power to the area was out and the diesel tank was malfunctioning, so someone had to refuel one of the hatchery’s backup generators every six to eight hours or the water pumps would shut off. “We want those generators to run for days on end, so if someone can’t be here, at least we know the fish have water,” he says. By mid-September, the Walbridge Fire had set fire to an area the size of Seattle, destroying 293 buildings, including the homes of landowners helping to restore the coho.

In early October, the fire was finally under control, but the drought in California continued. The salmon was still in danger. Earlier this year, the Sea Grant team had counted record numbers of wild-born cohos in the watershed; that fall they returned to pools that had held fish to find some completely dry. The winter rains came late and very few streams had enough water for adults to spawn. In the spring of 2021, just as 30,000 six-month-old hatchery coho were trying to swim out to the Pacific Ocean, the drought again stopped many tributaries from flowing. The Sea Grant team worked overtime, helping Fish and Wildlife staff rescue stranded fish.

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