West Coast Fisheries Managers Struggle with Climate Change, Drought Challenges

Flooded California rice fields used to raise juvenile Chinook salmon being tended to by workers as part of the Nigiri Project, which helps restore salmon populations. Photo: Center for Watershed Sciences University of California, Davis.

A long-term research project that provides vital food sources to juvenile Chinook salmon in California’s river floodplains is utilizing rice fields at rest to help these endangered fish grow robust. In Oregon, removal of four dams is anticipated to begin in 2023 to protect salmon recovery and in Washington state, officials say breaching the four Lower Snake River dams is not yet an option.

Meanwhile along the West Coast from California to Alaska, as states struggle with the adverse impact of climate change on fisheries, as well as the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government is providing for a second round of relief funding.

Those eligible are commercial fishing shellfish, charter and seafood sector industry members who suffered negative financial impacts. The funds are part of $300 million approved by Congress in December 2020, following an initial $300 million appropriation from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the summer of 2020.

From the total allocation of $600 million, Washington and Alaska received $90 million each, the highest funding of any states.

“Locally harvested seafood and shellfish and the broader commercial fishing industry is a vital part of who we are here in Washington state,” Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind commented this past summer.

“We recognize that the COVID pandemic has put a strain on the state’s commercial fishing, shellfish and charter industry members and appreciate our congressional leaders for helping to bring this funding to those who need it most,” Susewind added.

Combined efforts to revitalize fisheries hard hit by a warming planet, ocean acidification and barriers to fish migration created by dams built decades ago, plus federal efforts to help a fishing industry hard hit by the pandemic, have kept government agencies overseeing fisheries management busy in 2022.

(Top) A worker at flooded California rice fields used to raise juvenile Chinook salmon. (Above, left) Former rice fields tended to as part of the Nigiri Project, a long-term effort that involves flooding rice fields after the grain has been harvested. After the rice stalks decompose, they attract bugs and plankton, which in turn become food for juvenile salmon. (Above right) Workers tend to flooded California rice fields used to raise juvenile Chinook salmon. Photos: Center for Watershed Sciences University of California, Davis.


In California’s Central Valley, which was at one time an enormous flood plain, making room for wild salmon in an agricultural field has allowed for growing food for people in summer months and for juvenile Chinook salmon and birds in the off-season.

As John Brennan, a farm manager for the Knaggs Ranch in the Central Valley, told The New York Times earlier this year, “if you’re in the rice industry, you’re in the water industry, and if you’re in the water industry, you’re in the fish industry.”

Brennan also told the Environmental Defense Fund in an interview that “farmers are environmentalists too. Programs like this will help us fulfill our responsibility to nature and to coming generations.”

Brennan, an owner of Robbins Rice Company, has been collaborating with Jacob Katz, a scientist with the San Francisco-based conservation entity California Trout (CalTrout) in what is known as the Nigiri Project, a long-term effort that involves flooding rice fields after the grain has been harvested.  The rice stalks then decompose in the water, attracting bugs and plankton, which in turn become food for juvenile salmon. 

The Nigiri Project itself takes its name from a form of sushi with a slice of fish a top a compact wedge of rice. Their idea of restoring salmon populations by reintroducing salmon in winter months to floodplains farmed with rice in summer is proving very successful. Managers of Knaggs’ property aim to provide up to 2,500 acres of winter floodplain habitat for Chinook salmon on land that will continue to be farmed in summer.

Meanwhile, as California suffered through a fourth year of drought, state and federal biologists last spring moved threatened spring-run Chinook salmon to Clear Creek in Northern California, where cooler waters offered better support for spawning and helping fish to survive the drought.

Teams from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated the fish. The plan is return some 300 adult winter-run Chinooks to native habitat above Eagle Canyon Dam on North Fork Battle Creek, in Shasta and Tehama counties for the first time in over 110 years.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which operates hydroelectric facilities on Battle Creek, coordinated operations to make the move possible. The federal and state agencies described the event as “one of a series of urgent actions to help native fish survive another year of the lasting drought and high temperatures, thiamine deficiency, predators and other stressors that devastated the population the last two years in the Sacramento River below (the) Shasta and Keswick dams.”

The federal and state agencies, along with the California Department of Water Resources and water users, also worked closely with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose culture is intertwined with salmon in the area.

Other actions included expanding production of juvenile, winter-run Chinook salmon at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, operated by U.S. Fish & Wildlife at the base of Shasta Dam, and tracking the survival and reproduction rates of transported fish as part of research to learn more about promoting climate resilience in Chinook salmon.

Plans include field studies to understand the productivity of historic habitat where winter-run Chinook salmon were to be reintroduced. These and other steps are part of a comprehensive program in the Sacramento Valley to address all freshwater life cycle stages to benefit all four runs of Chinook salmon in the region. 

These efforts are also part of a longer-term recovery effort underway to address climate change and provide greater resilience for salmon by expanding access to important habitat and landscapes. That includes reintroduction for spawning and rearing above Shasta Dam and Reservoir, spawning in upper reaches of Battle Creek and finding food sources and safe haven in bypasses, oxbows and historic floodplain in the lower part of the system, the two agencies said.

“This reintroduction, combined with long term efforts to restore the Battle Creek watershed and establish a second population of winter-run beyond the Sacramento River, means we are helping this species to become more climate resilient and drought resilient for a brighter future,” California Fish & Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham said.

Juvenile Chinook salmon. Photo: Center for Watershed Sciences University of California, Davis.


NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region officials in September released new guidance to improve the resilience of fish passage facilities to climate change.

Since 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service, aware that future environmental conditions may be substantially different, has been working to include methods to incorporate climate change projections into engineering designs of fish passage facilities and stream crossings. The document is online at https://tinyurl.com/yckmtncs.

In Oregon, a final NOAA Fisheries report released in late September concluded that breaching the Snake River dams, which generate 686,000 megawatt-hours of hydroelectricity, was one major way to protect salmon.

“The common message is clear across all the work that salmon rebuilding depends on large-scale actions, including breaching dams, systematically restoring tributary and estuary habitats and securing a more functional salmon ocean ecosystem,” the report stated.

In late August, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its final environmental impact statement, reiterating its support for removing those dams in the nation’s largest dam-removal project, energy and environment-focused publication E&E News noted in its Greenwire report.

Mark Bransom, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp., which took over ownership of the dams in 2016, said that pending final approvals, dam removal could start in 2023 and conclude as early as 2024. The final plan does call for more consultation with tribes and other landowners who would be affected by removing the dams.

Rob Masonis, vice president of western conservation for nonprofit group Trout Unlimited, said removing four dams on the Lower Snake River would be the foundation of salmon recovery measures in the Columbia Basin.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, noted that these dams provide carbon-free energy to the Pacific Northwest and allow farmers whose land abuts the river to irrigate crops, and barges to reach the inland port of Lewiston. Both said these services need to be replaced before the dams can be removed.

Still, the NOAA Fisheries report said removing the dams would result in one of the best chances for salmon recovery, especially in the face of climate change, as water temperatures continue to rise and decrease river flows critically important to salmon survival.

Breaching on the Snake River dams would help young fish move faster downstream, dropping the number of dams the fish encountered as they head to the ocean, thus further reducing stress to the juvenile salmon. It remains uncertain, however, if additional stress can lead to more young salmon dying in the ocean, according to the report.

The study noted that in cases where dams were recently removed, including those on Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers, those river ecosystems improved faster than anticipated.

The report also outlined mid-range goals for wild salmon and steelhead by 2050 set by the Columbia Basin Partnership task force, a group including tribes, agriculture, fishing and transportation groups.

Inslee’s and Murray’s comments in late August came after findings were released in a joint report on dam removal and salmon recovery. While Washington relies heavily on hydroelectric power generated by those dams, the impact they have on salmon, orcas and tribal fishing grounds have become impossible to ignore, especially in the face of climate change impacts, including drought, heat waves, reduced snowpack and more, The Seattle Times reported.

In any case, dam removal in any capacity would reduce the state’s renewable energy sources in efforts to transition away from fossil fuels by 2050. In addition, congressional approval is required for removal of federal dams.

“It’s clear that breach is not an option right now—while many mitigation measures exist, many require further analysis or are not possible to implement in the near-term,” Murray said in a statement. Inslee and Murray also said in a joint statement that they are adamant that “in any circumstance where the Lower Snake River dams would be breached, the replacement and mitigation of their benefits must be pursued before decommissioning and breaching.”

The report did not take a stance on whether or not the dams should be removed, but concluded that breaching the dams would offer the best chance for salmon runs to recover in the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers, and for honoring tribal rights promised by the federal government, the Times noted.  

Margaret Bauman is an Alaska journalist and photographer with an extensive background in Alaska’s industries and environmental issues related to those industries. A long-time Alaska resident, she has also covered news of national and international importance in other states on the staff of United Press International, the Associated Press, and CBS News.