With a flash of silver and pink, a male salmon signaled its arrival in a stretch of the Tuolumne River near La Grange.
It sought to fertilize eggs laid in the shallow stream bed gravel by a female that also had returned from a few years in the Pacific Ocean.
Chinook salmon spawning has been going on since September on San Joaquin Valley rivers. It’s a stirring sight for people who love nature, but important as well to farmers and other water users who could face cutbacks if the fish numbers stay low.
This year, at least, they are not doing too badly. Many of the spawning fish were born on the rivers in 2010 and 2011, when the water ran high, and they enjoyed healthy conditions at sea. They return to streams shrunken by drought, but well-timed reservoir releases have provided some of the flows they need.
“This is where they want to be,” said Gretchen Murphey, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, during an early December visit to the La Grange stretch. “This is the habitat they’re looking for.”
As of Monday, 3,607 salmon had passed through a fish-counting device on their way to the Tuolumne’s spawning stretch in the low foothills, up from 2,152 a year earlier, and just 255 in 2009.
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