During the first week of November every year, like clockwork, the gates to the fish ladder open at Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the American River, and the Chinook salmon — crucial to California’s commercial and recreational fishing industry — climb 22 steps to complete their final journey home.
“It’s our favorite day of the year,” says Laura Drath, interpretive services supervisor at Nimbus for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, during this year’s Nov. 4 opening.
Salmon is a $1 billion commercial industry in California, Drath says. The annual opening of the hatchery’s ladder provides a window into the wonders of science, but also shows the key role the hatchery system plays in keeping California’s salmon fishery healthy. “Without the support of hatcheries, we wouldn’t be able to sustain populations at a high enough level to support that industry,” Drath says.
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The fall-run salmon will arrive through December, with steelhead trout following. Fish will continue to enter the hatchery in Rancho Cordova through February. The salmon entering the hatchery were hatched at Nimbus or in the American River, with some strays coming in from the Feather and Mokelumne rivers. Their three- to four-year round-trip journey includes a trip to the Pacific Ocean. The fish are spawned at the hatchery, providing public viewing opportunities twice a week to watch the egg collection process.
About 840,000 eggs were taken during the first week of spawning at the Nimbus facility, one of the three major state-run hatcheries in the Central Valley that will collect a total of about 24 million eggs this fall. From those eggs, Nimbus will produce about 4 million Chinook salmon, as well as about 430,000 Steelhead, for release next spring.
There are some indicators this will be a good year, Drath says, such as the large number of fish stacked up at the base of the ladder waiting to spawn and positive early reports from ocean commercial boats.
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