California Salmon: Oroville Hatchery

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I read a press release from the state Department of Fish and Game last week that the hatchery up in Oroville, on the Feather River just below the big State Water Project dam, was about to open its gates to fall run chinook salmon and steelhead. Saturday we drove up there, 142 miles from Berkeley, to see what the show looked like. After several years of disappearing fall salmon runs, it was a thrill to see the fish coming up the ladder toward the hatchery. In the river at the bottom of the fishway–a low dam blocks the fish from going any further upstream–it seemed there were hundreds of salmon, maybe more, churning the water and leaping into the air. The ladder includes a below-grade viewing area so you can see the fish on their way up. We were there for two or three hours, and we saw a steady stream of people, including lots of families with kids, coming to check on the run. Very cool.

Still reporting the story, but watching the fish, one is seized with the feeling where there’s life, there’s hope for the salmon. (And yes, that feeling persists even knowing to what a huge degree humans are intervening in the process we’re watching. A hatchery is really a kind of fish factory after all, though that’s not entirely visible when you’re watching the salmon progressing up the ladder. I’ve had a couple people ask me, “After they come up to the hatchery, what happens?” Well, technicians step in and harvest the roe and sperm from the fish and kill them in the process. For salmon, that’s the same end result as the wild run–though vastly different in the details and perhaps the quality of fish that result. For now, in this place, the hatchery is all we have left to keep the run going. So a celebration is in order despite our heavy-handed intervention.)

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