The short-lived chill on this mid-August morning is quickly being replaced by ripples of heat.
Dylan Stompe and Nick Balfour’s boat is the lone vessel in sight during their 10-minute trek from the Sycamore Grove launch ramp in Red Bluff to their first stop on the Sacramento River. Hundreds of swallows and a few dozen dragonflies and ducks are the only ones to witness—at least above water—what these Chico State students are up to.
Their mission: Save the Chinook salmon
Numbers for the Chinook salmon runs that migrate through the Sacramento River, a critical spot along their development to adulthood, have dropped to dangerously low levels. These salmon will eventually reach the ocean, where commercial fisheries operate. But historically low numbers have driven the Pacific Fishery Management Council in recent years to cut commercial and recreational fishing seasons short, push back start dates, or prohibit operations altogether.
Over the last 40 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates winter-run salmon numbers have dropped 93 percent, with other seasonal runs also dropping precipitously.
“California’s salmon populations are in dire straits,” said Mandy Banet, an aquatic ecologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Chico State. “Unless we address the underlying causes of their decline, we are likely to lose them for good.”
The impact cannot be understated, as the Chinook salmon have long contributed to not only the economy, but recreation, culture, and the environment. Their growing absence has widespread consequences.
Salmon are anadromous (born in fresh water, migrating to the ocean to mature, and returning to their birth place to spawn), so migrating in the Sacramento River is literally a matter of life or death: Reach the ocean and they have a far better chance of returning to the streams to spawn. But they have to survive long enough as salmonids to have a fighting chance.
Central to this crisis is the disappearance of side channels along the Sacramento River’s main stem, where juvenile Chinook salmon start maturing in a safe, nurturing environment, then return to spawn after reaching adulthood in the ocean.
Funded by a five-year, $16.9 million grant by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, Chico State has joined more than a half dozen local and statewide agencies in a collaboration to restore existing side channels and attempt to build new ones at select locations along a 50-mile stretch of the Sacramento River between Redding and Red Bluff.
Data is at the heart of the project, helping scientists, contractors, and biologists decide which steps to take. Filling that role are Chico State’s biology students and faculty, as they study side channels before and after restoration, compare them with data from control sites, and count the number and condition of fish at these sites.
“The idea is to go out and see if the restoration is actually working, doing what we want it to do, and providing additional habitat for fish,” said Banet, who is leading the University’s efforts. “This lets us know if the restoration was successful, and it also can help us improve restoration efforts in the future.”
‘It’s such a balance’
The small boat’s motor drones dutifully past RV parks and riverfront homes, beneath two-lane roads and major highway overpasses as students Stompe and Balfour breeze past the Red Bluff Diversion Dam that operated for around 20 years until 2011, when it became apparent it had been wreaking havoc on the river’s salmon migration.
The day’s first stop: a narrow 100-foot-long side channel sliced from the Sacramento River by 30 feet of tule reed. Here the students will take base numbers, in preparation for the work to restore side channels along this swath of serenity.
The channels, both natural and artificial, can be narrow branches off the river’s main stem or simply an area against its banks. Trees, overhanging branches, and roots that double as safe havens from predators provide vital riparian cover where juveniles can safely mature then return to when it’s time to spawn.
Graduate student Dylan Stompe, left, and undergraduate Carlos Estrada ride on the Sacramento River to one of their survey sites.
Going back in history, the Sacramento River once had plenty of side channels. But, as the State of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife reported in 2001, it’s long been in decline due to worsening water clarity and high flows, combined with flood and erosion control that decrease suitable salmonid habitat.
“California water is very highly managed. Some of it goes to agriculture, some of it goes to Southern California, and some of it’s flood control, because people now live in areas where the historic way of water would inundate the central valley,” Banet said. “People are trying to take small steps to restore that habitat, while still keeping the infrastructure in place to protect people from floods. It’s such a balance.”
Dams play a tremendous role in water management, including water flow and flood control throughout the Sacramento Valley. And yet, according to NOAA data, 70 to 90 percent of the spawning grounds for Chinook salmon have been completely cut off by a dam or multiple dams.
Rising river water temperatures and the predation of juvenile salmon are additional factors—all pointing back to disappearing side channels.
The solution: Restore the side channels, or build new ones. Prevailing wisdom suggests this will create new spawning grounds and help more juvenile salmon to thrive, meaning more salmon will reach adulthood, which means more salmon migrating back to the Sacramento River, and a subsequent cycle of more spawning and more salmon.
Students as Saviors
Supported by a list of collaborators from Stanford University and University of California, Santa Barbara to British Columbia and the Danish Technical University, Banet arrived at Chico State at the right time. For her doctoral research at UC Riverside, Banet focused on the evolution of different reproductive strategies in fish. Wanting a stronger conservation focus and noticing a push toward salmon conservation in the Pacific Northwest, Banet applied for and was awarded a fellowship to study the effects of migration stress at the Pacific Salmon Ecology and Conservation Laboratory in British Columbia.
There, she was further struck by the journey Pacific salmon take to complete their life cycle.
“Even under perfect conditions, their story reads like a hero’s saga. As tiny juveniles, they migrate out to the ocean, under the threat of voracious predators along the way. Once they reach the ocean, they grow much larger but so do many of the predators,” Banet said. “As adults they must perform great feats of athleticism, often migrating hundreds of miles upstream without eating, to navigate to the very stream they were born in to reproduce. And they only get one chance to do this, because they die after reproducing.
“Once you layer on all of the additional challenges that humans have added to that in the last century or so . . . it’s amazing any of them make it at all.”
Soon after she was hired at Chico State, Banet was presented with the opportunity from the Sacramento River Forum and the Geographical Information Center to be part of a solution, leading a team on the side channels restoration project.
For over a year, Banet’s team—graduate students Stompe and Balfour and undergraduate Carlos Estrada—have gathered data, counted fish, measured water clarity, and reported on habitat sites for the project.
Estrada, who eventually wants to study gene splicing and combat degenerative diseases, transferred from Long Beach City College to Chico State after the spring 2016 semester expecting to spend his summer working in a department store.
Instead, the biology major found himself on Banet’s team, thanks to a stipend made possible by a $4.2 million grant awarded to Chico State to support underserved students in STEM. His first assignment was heading out on the boat with Stompe and Balfour.
“Being the first in my family to go to college, coming out here in the river to snorkel for Chinook salmon has been the highlight of my life so far,” said Estrada. “I never dreamed I’d be doing this at this point in my life. I think, ‘Wow, I’m getting paid for this.’ I’m very lucky.”
In contrast, Balfour, who completed his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Vermont, developed an interest in fish early in life. He remembers when his father, a professional photographer, would return after shooting underwater life in exotic locales around the globe.
“When you see your dad come home from Fiji and French Polynesia with photos of fish so big they could eat you whole, you get hooked,” he said.
For five weeks last summer, Balfour studied at Friday Harbor Laboratory in the San Juan Islands, through the University of Washington. He researched methods to measure fish psychology and personality, including ways to determine if the fish are bold or shy.
Graduate students Nick Balfour (left) and Dylan Stompe work to fertilize Chinook salmon eggs in a new state-of-the-art fish facility at Chico State.
Similarly, this is Stompe’s kind of work. He was 13 months old his first time on a boat. He grew up hunting and fishing. After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in wildlife, fish, and conservation biology, he worked for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for three years before returning to school at Chico State.
“I spend a lot of time on the Sacramento River for my research assistantship and thesis work, and as a result I’ve gotten to see and handle a ton of different species, aquatic and terrestrial,” he said. “We frequently see beavers, otters, muskrats, deer, ospreys, golden and bald eagles, among many other species, and through my thesis work I’ve personally handled at least nine different species of fish. It’s pretty cool being out there and seeing this stuff that most people never get to experience.”
Banet understands she and her team have a unique opportunity. The grant provides funds for the restoration, while giving her team the ability to collect and analyze data over time, which can be rare.
Working with students is the best part of her job, Banet said, adding that she can’t overstate how impressed she’s been with her team.
“Research can be hard work, and you can sometimes get frustrated or disillusioned with a project,” she said. “Having motivated, passionate students working in the lab helps me look at things through a fresh lens. They bring in new perspectives and skills, and they are really the drivers of all the work we do.”
Balfour, who also works with rainbow trout and shiner perch, gets passionate about projects like site restorations because people connect with salmon on so many different levels.
“It’s one of those things I can geek out on, but it’s something people can easily relate to,” he said. “If somebody’s going to pay for it, eat it, fish for it, it’s a lot easier to convince somebody that it’s worth conserving and learning more about.”
In the Water
After Stompe and Balfour squeeze into their wetsuits and slip on their snorkel masks, they slide into the chilly Sacramento River. They, along with Estrada, have recorded data from five control and five restoration sites in Shasta and Tehama counties. They’ll dip into the water anywhere from two to four times a week.
“We’re establishing a baseline, so later we have an idea of what has changed, as well as what [fish are] coming in and what’s leaving,” Balfour said, handing Stompe a device to measure water clarity.
They also look for indicator fish species, which can appear if something unusual occurs in a side channel, like high turbidity, dramatic swings in Ph balance, or a measurable temperature change.
In other words, if certain fish show up in lieu of salmon, they’ll know something is amiss, and they’ll have to determine what it is.
It’s easy to see getting into the water as recreation. For Banet’s team, though, this is work. And it’s much bigger than the classroom or the lab.
“It’s empowering to know that what you’re doing may improve the outcome for an entire species,” Stompe said. “I’m a lifelong fisherman, and I like to think that what I’m doing is helping to preserve that pastime for myself and everyone else in California.”
Ancient Bloodlines, Evolutionary Wisdom
Americans adore salmon. We fish for it, and educate our children about and marvel at their migration patterns. And, commercially, we eat it—lots of it. Whether it’s grilled, poached, smoked, canned, or raw, we’ve developed an insatiable taste.
When it comes to the salmon’s historical and cultural significance, though, the indigenous people that once lived along the Sacramento River, and still live in the North State, perhaps feel the deepest cut, now that its once-abundant population has been reduced to a whisper from that of a century ago.
Sandra Knight, vice chair of the Mechoopda Tribe, said indigenous Native Americans treated (and still do) the once-thriving salmon population with dignity, respect, and as a vital part of the entire ecosystem. That relationship has been stripped from them.
“We celebrated our coexistence with the salmon through celebration and dance,” Knight said. “Our intimate relationship of spear fishing the salmon has been gone for a very long time. The salmon is considered our family, and a part of the family is no longer. A piece of our universe is gone.”
Knight said efforts like the site restoration project are long overdue. They fill her with both optimism and hope because, if nothing else, someone has to save the salmon.
“The salmon need us to care and they need everybody to care,” she said.
Doug Hesse (MA, English, ’06) has fished recreationally in North State waterways from Humboldt County to the Feather River, as well as in Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Originally from Orange County, he was awestruck when he witnessed local runs of salmon for the first time in Northern California.
“To hold a salmon in your hands is to hold everything it went through to reach your fingertips, and everything it will go through when it is released,” said Hesse. “If it’s a day you’re harvesting a fish, you’re putting into your body ancient bloodlines rich with evolutionary wisdom and loaded with nutrients.”
Hesse said knowing that his alma mater is at the center of this restoration project fills him with a sense of pride.
“I’ve already gotten so much from Chico State, and that education has served me very well,” Hesse said. “I’m proud to see that its faculty and students understand the importance of salmon. They have what it takes to help make a difference that stands to benefit the entire state in a number of ways.”
While the work of Chico State and its project partners benefits everyone, it’s difficult to say when the full effects will be known. Banet said it takes at least a year to collect full data for a restored site, because it is an ever-changing system, and some changes, like vegetation to provide more shade, take time to grow.
“You don’t reconstruct a channel hat’s been blocked for over 40 years, and expect all the fish to come back right away,” said Susan Strachan of Chico State’s Geographical Information Center, another project partner.
Maybe not right away. But if conditions improve enough in the Sacramento River, it may be enough for the Chinook salmon runs to return to healthy numbers. A restoration project currently underway in the San Joaquin system, which faces a similar crisis with its deteriorating Chinook salmon runs, is showing early signs of promise.
At the end of the day, that creates hope—a sense of optimism that fuels Banet’s team. If populations can rebound elsewhere, maybe, just maybe, salmon can be saved on the Sacramento.
On their way back to Chico at the end of the day, Stompe and Balfour hand-deliver their data to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Red Bluff. This data reveals what most don’t see beneath the water’s surface. It tells scientists what works and what needs to be done differently, and ultimately drives decisions in this project.
“As a conservation biologist, there’s never a guarantee that my work will be on a species that people support as much as salmon in the state of California,” Balfour said. “For myself, however, the support of salmon conservation by so many people makes me feel more confident that our work can have a positive impact and that the public is not only willing to listen, but ready to consider long-term solutions.”
This story first appeared in Chico Statements.