Project to restore American River for native fish leads to surge in salmon nests

The American River is seeing an increase in native fish nests following a fall project carried out by federal, state and local agencies to re-establish natural spawning habitats.

The American River Fishery Restoration Project stretched through September 2019 and poured 14,000 cubic yards of gravel into the riverbed near Fair Oaks, while creating a side channel to rejuvenate 5.5 acres of spawning and rearing habitat. A November analysis by the Sacramento Water Forum tallied 345 salmon redds in the restored area, compared to zero redds in 2018.

Female salmons create redds by pressing their tails and bodies against gravel to create a pocket, which they then use to deposit as many as several hundred eggs.

According to Water Forum executive director Tom Gohring, the local agency partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which provided 90 percent of funding for the $1 million project through the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and Sacramento County Parks and Recreation.

Gohring says the forum has combined a number of methods in monitoring the physical space and wildlife of the American River, which includes snorkel, aerial, ground and lidar surveying.

“The physical monitoring is important because it tells us if the gravel has moved, if it’s where we put it. We know that the salmon like for the water to be an ideal depth and velocity, so if the gravel is moved around those conditions might not exist anymore,” he said. “These species adapted over a millennium to have part of their life cycle in the mountains, where it’s colder. We have blocked access to those mountain streams by putting in dams, and so we’re literally keeping the cold water fishery alive on the hot valley floor.”

The fall-run Chinook salmon departing the American River are classified as a species of concern under the Endangered Species Act, while the Central Valley steelhead migrating to the river have been classified as a threatened species since 1998.

According to data collected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, more than 21,000 fall-run Chinook were counted in the American River in 2018, while more than 163,000 were documented in 2003.

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