Swimming Upstream

map source: Wikipedia

I went on a journey along a river.

While I’ve had the pleasure of following several other rivers upstream from mouth to headwaters, on this river, the Sacramento River, I started in the middle, went to the mouth, then bounced up to some tributaries, then towards a view of the headwaters. The previous river-long journeys were intentional. I set out to follow the river, learn its geography, understand the social, political, and natural processes acting to define its channel.

The Sacramento sojourn was an accident and only part way through my trip (a business road trip) did I realize what I was doing. I didn’t visit the whole Sacramento watershed on this trip, that would have taken me towards the Sierras on the Feather River and towards the NE corner of California on the Pit River. No, this trip was limited to the main-stem Sacramento and one little tributary with a big role: Battle Creek.

Coleman National Fish Hatchery has been around for a while, just like this wayfinding sign.

Oddly, it’s the same part of the Sacramento that the migrating Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are currently able to access. Once upon a time they were able to reach the headwaters of the river but today dams blocking the way. Today their range is now limited and the high reaches of the watershed inaccessible and no longer enriched by their return.  So, as my journey progressed so too did my awareness of the salmon. The pinnacle of my journey, and the journey of many salmon, occurred at Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek.  You can see Battle Creek on the map just southeast of Redding, California.

Study that map a bit more and you’ll see a sprawling reservoir, Shasta Lake, created by Shasta Dam just north of Redding.  Built in the 1930s and 1940s, the dam is the terminus for the salmon, blocking their passage to the river and its upstream tributaries and headwaters that once were a part of their original range.  To help mitigate the loss of salmon spawning habitat, the Federal government built fish hatcheries. Coleman National Fish Hatchery is one of those hatcheries.

If you’ve ever seen a movie about anadromous fish, you’ll know the story of the salmon. Born in the cool rivers of the west, the young salmon migrate downriver, as they mature they also transition into estuaries where they adapt to the salinity of the sea, they head out to sea, live for several years, and then return to their natal rivers to spawn. Ideal spawning rivers are clear, clean, and cool.  In the river gravels the adult salmon create redds (spawning beds), lay their eggs (or fertilize if they’re male), and then die. The dead fish feed the other organisms in the river but their nutrient-rich flesh is also carried widely across the watershed by predators and scavengers such as bears, osprey, ravens, and many other small birds and mammals. It’s all a part of a wonderful cycle creating an exchange of nutrients between the sea and the mountains.

The journey of some Chinook ends on the pole of a fisherman.

Many fish attempt to pass the hatchery but are indeed foiled by this structure.

Back to Battle Creek, a 16-mile long tributary of the Sacramento River. Up Battle Creek, about six miles from the Sacramento River, sits Coleman National Fish Hatchery. No Chinook salmon are able to bypass the hatchery due to a concrete weir across the river. Some salmon end their journey before returning to the hatchery where they were raised – caught by fishermen or choosing to spawn out in lower Battle Creek. But, the  section of Battle Creek below the hatchery is far from the quintessential spawning stream. The creek has turbid and warm water (note the milkiness of the water and green algae in the photo below) and sediment-clogged gravel beds. Not your ideal spawning conditions. Still, the instincts of the salmon are strong and they continue to mate in the lower reaches of Battle Creek.

Spawning fish in lower Battle Creek.

Fall Chinook Salmon entering the hatchery compound

Only about 1% of the fish released by the hatchery, actually return. The fish that do return to the hatchery are processed. The spawning room at the hatchery is not too different from a cannery. It’s a sterile, assembly-line facility: stainless steel and plastic being cleaned and washed down by staff in rubber gloves and coveralls.  Fish that enter the spawning room are anesthetized, those that are not sufficiently affected by the drug are quickly dispatched the old-fashioned way. The first thing you hear entering the building is the “thwack…thwack…thwack” of under-drugged fish being clubbed.  Then down the stainless steel shoot where they are sorted, males one direction and females another. The females are hung by their gills on a hook and their eggs forced out using a pressure hose inserted into their side. The males are milked for their sperm.

Eggs being removed from a female Chinook Salmon.

Later the two will be combined under watchful scientific eyes. The eggs are sorted too – some are  kept, others sold as bait. The carcasses are mostly donated to food banks.

Salmon eggs headed to the incubation area.

While hatcheries serve some positive roles, they are also controversial. Certainly, they employ quite a few biologists and help to educate the public on the life cycle and needs of fish. However, they also unnaturally select fish for breeding success, condition fish to human presence , are sometimes a source of disease due to unnaturally crowded conditions endured by the young fish.  But, most unfortunate of all is that after all the fish have endured over time, the life cycle that they evolved is now usurped by human intervention.  We’ve taken an amazing natural process and seized control of it, altered it, and left and indelible mark on the genes of these fish.

For full disclosure, Mr. Mudlips owes much of his upbringing to the hatchery system. He was a fish hatchery brat. Both of his parents dedicated their lives to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They both love and care deeply about nature and wildlife and when they embarked on their hatchery careers we didn’t know all of the harm that hatcheries would cause. So, they raised fish, and raised a family where the fish took them. And so it goes, good people with good intentions trying to do good based on the most current science. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in being guided by science. But, we do sometimes make mistakes with it as our defense.

One can only wonder will we keep up this upstream swim, trying with misguided good deeds to intervene or reverse environmental damage which we’ve caused; avoiding the obvious: as long as the dams are there, the fish will suffer.

The childhood fish hatchery residence of Mr. Mudlips – aka Coleman National Fish Hatchery employee housing.

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