Home for the holidays: Salmon and Steelhead make a robust return to the Mokelumne River

CLEMENTS, CA.The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) forecast this year’s fall run to be one of the highest on record with 14,800 Chinook salmon and 376 steelhead returning to the Mokelumne River to date. With a few weeks left in the season, the final totals will be available in January 2019.  

“With so many threats facing fish, strong returns confirm the health of the Mokelumne River, making this a welcoming home where salmon can survive and thrive,” said Jose Setka, EBMUD Manager of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The strategies at work are proving successful and are leading to a robust population of salmon in this river.”

The strong 2018 fall run comes after last year’s record-breaking return of nearly 20,000 salmon, the highest-ever recorded on the river since 1940.  These returns indicate a healthy river system that supplies water to homes and farms in Amador, Calaveras, Alpine and San Joaquin counties and 1.4 million East Bay customers. 

Although the Mokelumne is one of the smallest tributaries to the Delta, its salmon population comprised approximately 20 percent of the commercial and 35 percent of the recreational catch off the coast of California last year. As fishery returns in other parts of the Central Valley experience historical lows, this river’s contribution to the salmon industry is growing in significance. 

As of November 28, 2018,this season has welcomed 14,800 adult salmon in the river, just under the 16,500 salmon seen at this time last year, and well above the 20-year average of 9,541. The record 2017 Chinook salmon population return totaled 19,954. The steelhead run is beginning, and for the third consecutive year, the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery is anticipating a run on par with last year’s return of more than 600 fish, nearly 375 percent above the historical average of 160.  

“The partnership between the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is one characterized by innovation, high-quality science and operations, and mutual respect,” said Kevin Shaffer, chief of CDFW’s Fisheries Branch. “We’re seeing the benefits now with a healthy river and good returns of Chinook salmon to the river and hatchery.”

The fall returns are a result of efforts that have focused on fine-tuning water operations, including managing cold water in Camanche and Pardee reservoirs to maintain good spawning conditions, releasing pulse flows to attract fish, restoring gravel habitat and using tagging data to evaluate hatchery release strategies. Additional measures include transporting juvenile salmon by barge and feeding them a specialized diet to assist the fish in transferring from freshwater to seawater.

“Salmon fishermen up and down the coast recognize and greatly appreciate the ground-breaking work being done at the Mokelumne hatchery.  Without the contribution of salmon from this hatchery, our catches would be much lower,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

The ability to implement management actions that lead to positive outcomes in the Mokelumne River is due to engagement from a diverse group of stakeholders. Less than a decade ago the Mokelumne experienced one of the worse salmon returns on record.

The efforts of all stakeholders within the Mokelumne have resulted in a sustained recovery. In addition to Lower Mokelumne River Partnership member agencies CDFW, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and EBMUD, stakeholders responsible for the overall improvements in the river include California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, Woodbridge Irrigation District and landowners along the river. 

Photos and video available upon request.