When you think of a private fish farm, you don’t typically think of conservation, but through a new partnership that is changing.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery and Mt. Lassen Trout Farm have come together to raise endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and release them into Battle Creek as part of the Jumpstart Project aimed at reintroducing winter-run to the watershed.
A new approach
Phil Mackey has been raising trout for nearly 50 years at the trout farm, so when biologists approached him about using one of their hatcheries as a location to raise endangered winter-run Chinook salmon he didn’t hesitate.
Mount Lassen Trout Farm is a private aquaculture facility that is primarily known for raising trout that are used in stocking lakes and ponds, and providing food fish to restaurants around the state of California. Mackey and his daughter, Katie Harris, are co-owners of the farm and take great pride in the fish that are raised at their facility.
“Wow, it would be such an honor to play even a small role in the restoration of the Battle Creek Watershed,” said Harris, when she learned that the farm would be used for raising winter-run. “This is something very unique, and we are extremely proud to have the opportunity be involved in this ambitious endeavor."
Mackey and Harris both said that they have never heard of any other private hatchery working with government agencies for conservation related to an endangered species.
“The reaction from the private aquaculture industry has been extremely positive,” said Harris. “Folks I work with through the U.S. Trout Farmers Association and National Aquaculture Association always ask how the project is doing. They are rooting for the success of this as much as anyone because they recognize what a big deal this partnership is.”
A short history but a big impact
Hydroelectric development on Battle Creek in the early 1900’s resulted in winter-run being completely excluded from their historic spawning habitat within the creek and were extirpated from the watershed. Until recently, there has only been a single spawning population of winter-run that exists, downstream of Keswick Dam, in the Sacramento River which is completely outside of their historic spawning range.
However, that all began to change in 2017 when National Marine Fisheries Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Service decided to jump-start the reintroduction efforts of winter-run in Battle Creek, which is now known as the “Jumpstart” Project. Between March and April 2018, over 220,000 juvenile winter-run were released into North Fork Battle Creek.
The juvenile fish released into the creek were the progeny of captivespawned at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, the Service’s winter-run hatchery located at the base of Shasta Dam. After spawning, the juvenile fish were transferred to Coleman where they were raised for a few months to imprint on the water, and then were released.
Coleman is a federally owned and operated hatchery on Battle Creek and has successfully raised salmon for decades. However, the water used at Coleman is a mixture of water from both North Fork and South Fork Battle Creek. Biologists are concerned that this mixing of water may result in adult salmon imprinting on, and returning to South Fork Battle Creek, where water temperatures are often too high for winter-run spawning. So, they needed a way to increase the imprinting on North Fork Battle Creek.
Multiple agencies and partners including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, PG&E, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service collaborated to come up with alternative locations on the North Fork Battle Creek where winter-run could be raised for the reintroduction efforts.
Laurie Earley, supervisory fish biologist for the Service, has worked on fish conservation efforts in Battle Creek for close to 15 years and is the lead biologist from the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office for the Jumpstart Project. She said the group worked for many years to assess locations for rearing and to obtain support. Finally, in June 2019 funding was provided by California Department of Fish and Wildlife and in September 2020 an agreement was finalized with the farm.
“There were a lot of people that assisted in getting this project up and running, from project development to the final Cooperative Agreement, it truly was a team effort,” Earley said. “Working with partners like Phil and Katie, who are invested and passionate about the success, not only of this project but the restoration and reintroduction efforts in Battle Creek, has strengthened the collaborative nature of the project.”
As the project enters the fourth year of releasing fish in Battle Creek the hard work is paying off. During the 2020 return year, over 1,000 adult winter-run returned to Battle Creek. These fish were released in 2018 and 2019 and completed their journey to the Pacific Ocean and back to what is expected will be the natal spawning grounds for Battle Creek winter-run. For the first time in decades, biologists were able to document winter-run spawning in Battle Creek and North Fork Battle Creek, and they even captured some juveniles in a rotary screw trap in lower Battle Creek showing that the spawning was a success.
This year 40,000 winter-run are being raised at the farm and 120,000 are being raised at Coleman. Brett Galyean, project leader at Coleman, communicates often with Mackey and Harris to discuss the growth, care and feeding of the fish at both facilities.
“Katie, Phil and the staff at the Mt. Lassen Trout Farm have done a great job observing and learning the subtle differences in rearing and feeding winter Chinook salmon than other salmonids,” said Galyean.
The fish from both the farm and Coleman will be released together into North Fork Battle Creek in the spring of 2021. Using a combination of coded-wire tags and acoustic tags, biologists will monitor the two groups of fish after release. The acoustic tags allow for real-time tracking of fish when they are released into the creek and coded-wire tags will be used for long-term monitoring of fish when they are captured as adults. This information will be used to help biologists compare the survival and, eventual, spawning success of the two groups.
This new approach to tackling conservations challenges has brought about a partnership between unlikely partners.
“I have appreciated the mutual respect between everyone involved with this project,” said Harris. “The collaboration and support we have received from all of the agencies involved has been tremendous.”
Galyean added, “I look forward to working with them on this project for the next few years.”