FOLLOW US:

Stay connected with us
around the nation »


Email Newsletter icon, E-mail List icon

Species in the Spotlight: Sacramento River Winter-Run Chinook Salmon

View slideshow Illustration of a Chinook salmon. Credit: NOAA Fisheries chinooksalmon01.jpg chinooksalmon02.jpg chinooksalmon03.jpg

About 
Sacramento River Winter-run Chinook Salmon 

New! Sacramento Winter-Run Chinook Salmon Action Plan (PDF) 

LOCATION 

  • The Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon evolutionarily significant unit includes all winter-run spawning naturally in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, as well as winter-run that are propagated at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery (LSNFH) which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Because of their need for cold water during the summer, winter-run Chinook salmon historically occurred only in rivers and creeks fed by cold water springs, such as the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, and Battle Creek. The construction of Shasta and Keswick dams eliminated access to the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, effectively causing the extirpation of the winter-run Chinook salmon populations that spawned and reared there. The fish from these different populations were forced to mix and spawn as one population downstream of Keswick Dam on the Sacramento River. The construction and operation of hydropower facilities in Battle Creek made the creek inhospitable to winter-run Chinook salmon, and that population also was extirpated.

STATUS

  •  Today, only the one population of winter-run Chinook salmon spawning downstream of Keswick Dam exists. This population crashed in abundance from an average of 87,000 spawning adults in the late 1960s to fewer than 200 in the early 1990s. This represents a 21 percent decline per year.

HABITAT 

  • Adult winter-run Chinook salmon immigration from the ocean to Sacramento River spawning areas occurs from December through July.  Spawning takes in the coldest water available in the Sacramento River from late-April and mid-August.  Winter-run Chinook salmon juveniles rear in the freshwater for several months before migrating out to the Pacific Ocean where they spend one to two years feeding before returning to freshwater to spawn. 
  • On June 16, 1993, NMFS issued the final rule designating critical habitat for winter-run Chinook salmon (58 FR 33212).

MORE

What Can You Do?

  • Water is a critical part of California’s way of life. The state’s economy, environment, and people need water to flourish. Unfortunately, there is limited water to meet these needs  – especially during this historic drought.  Californians are acting now to make water conservation a way of life.  Please visit saveourwater.com to find out what you can do to make conservation a part of your daily life.
  • Learn more about our Species in the Spotlight.
  • Learn more about Chinook Salmon.
  • Read the latest report on Recovering Threatened and Endangered Species.
  • Check out what our leader, Eileen Sobeck, has to say about our Species in the Spotlight.


The Sacramento River Winter-Run salmon is one of 
NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight.    
 

Background
Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are an iconic part of California’s natural heritage that must be preserved in order to ensure the economic and recreational wellbeing of future generations. Millions of wild salmon once returned to spawn in the foothills and mountains of California’s Central Valley.  Streams fed by rainfall, snowmelt, and cold water springs encircled the valley, fostering a diversity and abundance of Chinook salmon.  The endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon are particularly important among California’s salmon runs because they exhibit a life-history strategy found nowhere else on the West Coast. These Chinook salmon are unique in that they spawn during the summer months when air temperatures usually approach their warmest.

As a result, winter-run Chinook salmon require stream reaches with cold water sources that will protect their incubating eggs from the warm ambient conditions. Because of this need for cold water during the summer, winter-run Chinook salmon historically occurred only in rivers and creeks fed by cold water springs, such as the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, and Battle Creek.

The construction of Shasta and Keswick dams eliminated access to the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, effectively causing the extirpation of the winter-run Chinook salmon populations that spawned and reared there. The fish from these different populations were forced to mix and spawn as one population downstream of Keswick Dam on the Sacramento River. The construction and operation of hydropower facilities in Battle Creek made the creek inhospitable to winter-run Chinook salmon, and that population also was extirpated.

The one remaining winter-run Chinook salmon population has persisted in large part due to agency-managed cold water releases from Shasta Reservoir during the summer and artificial propagation from Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery’s (LSNFH) winter-run Chinook salmon conservation program.  Thus, winter-run Chinook salmon are dependent on sufficient cold water storage in Shasta Reservoir, and it has long been recognized that a prolonged drought could have devastating impacts, possibly leading to the species’ extinction.

Threats
Currently, Shasta and Keswick dams block winter-run Chinook salmon from nearly all of their historical spawning habitat.  The spawning habitat that is accessible is subject to water temperatures that are too warm to support egg and fry survival, particularly during the current California drought, which is one of the most severe on record.  In addition to lost and degraded spawning habitat, 98 percent of riparian and floodplain habitat along the Sacramento River is no longer available to support juvenile rearing. Other threats to winter-run Chinook salmon include water withdrawals, predation by non-native species, lack of quality rearing habitat in the Delta, and commercial and recreational fisheries.

Recovery
In 2014, NOAA Fisheries adopted a plan to recover Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, as well as Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead.

A recovery plan is one of the most important tools in the species recovery process. It provides a sound scientific foundation and guides decision-making for partners implementing the plan and its actions. This recovery plan sets goals and prioritizes actions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its watersheds, laying out steps to achieve the species’ recovery. It provides a framework for targeting conservation efforts and modifying actions based on new science and changing circumstances.

Recovery plans provide guidance and are voluntary; they do not have the force of law. As such, the success of recovery efforts ultimately depends on partnerships and cooperation to ensure the right actions are implemented to advance long-term species’ recovery.

State and Federal Agencies, public organizations, non-profit groups and others in California’s Central Valley have formed strong partnerships to save Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon.  Efforts to protect winter-run Chinook salmon include restoring habitat, utilizing conservation hatchery programs, closely monitoring the population, and carefully managing scarce cold water.  Additional key actions needed to safe guard winter-run Chinook salmon from further declines include:

As part of our strategy to prevent extinction, we are developing a 5-year plan of action for this species that builds on the recovery plan and details the focused efforts that are needed over the next 5 years. We will continue to engage vital partners in the public and private sectors in actions they can take to support this important effort.