Russian River steelhead
Q: This year’s steelhead return numbers in the Russian River are low. Is the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Warm Springs Hatchery doing anything to improve the situation?
A: As anglers ourselves, we sympathize with the frustration of low steelhead return numbers so far this year. It’s important to remember that the recent steelhead return numbers are preliminary. Peak spawning for steelhead is in February, so it’s still too early to say anything conclusive about this year’s returns. It’s also important to remember that there are many elements beyond CDFW’s control. CDFW cares for steelhead at the hatchery for one year. But the steelhead life cycle is 2-3 years, and they spend much of that time in the ocean where environmental factors impact behavior. Despite modern scientific data and all the resources we have available, the life history of steelhead remains a bit of a mysterious odyssey. The journey from freshwater to the ocean and back is filled with perils, obstacles and unknowns.
Under CDFW’s new hatchery genetic management plan, production this year and moving forward has been reduced from 500,000 to 400,000. CDFW’s goals at both the Warm Springs Hatchery and Coyote Valley Fish Facility are to release 200,000 smolts from each location for a total of 400,000 juvenile steelhead released to the Russian River watershed annually. Standard anadromous hatchery practices can yield a one percent return annually but fluctuate depending on environmental conditions. Steelhead are produced to help sustain a healthy population in the Russian River for future generations, and to provide maximum angler opportunity while adhering to best hatchery management practices.
Q: New data shows that overwintering numbers for western monarch butterflies improved to almost 250,000 in the past year. Has the western monarch population recovered?
A: Although CDFW is cautiously optimistic about the new data, it does not represent a full recovery. The 2021-22 overwintering numbers improved significantly but they still represent a one-year trend. Prior to the 1980s, California hosted between one to four million overwintering butterflies each year. When viewed through that lens, 200,000 western monarchs is less than 20 percent of the historical average. When viewed through that lens, 200,000 western monarchs is less than 85 percent of historic numbers. We saw western monarchs decline from around 200,000 to less than 2,000 in just three years (2016-2018), indicating they are still vulnerable at that population size. Finally, monarchs were concentrated in overwintering sites along the Central Coast between Los Angeles and Monterey counties, while the Bay Area supported fewer than 600 monarchs this year despite having robust populations in the past. We’d like to see monarch numbers increase across their entire historic range and better understand why they were not uniformly distributed this year.
Despite these concerns, CDFW remains encouraged by the data and inspired to build on the past year’s success. We’re focused on improving management of CDFW-owned overwintering sites and increasing the availability of early-season milkweed to support first generation monarchs. We encourage the public to use habitat-based approaches to conservation (such as planting regionally appropriate native milkweed and nectar plant species) and to participate in community science projects that help track the status of the western monarch population.
Q: Which species of wildlife are most impacted by oil spills?
A: Many wildlife species, as well as plants and other natural resources, can be impacted by oil spills. However, seabirds and sea otters are most often impacted.
For seabirds, this is because: 1) There are comparatively more seabirds in California than other species at risk, such as marine mammals; 2) Seabirds spend a lot of time floating at the surface of the water, where most of the oil is; and 3) The microscopic structure of feathers that keeps birds waterproof is damaged, leading quickly to hypothermia.
Sea otters are vulnerable to oil spills because they spend most of their time on the surface of the water and use their dense fur (with a microscopic structure similar in some ways to feathers) to keep warm.
CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) is the state’s public trustee in protecting, managing and restoring California’s wildlife and habitat after an oil spill. OSPR works to protect and preserve 3,400 miles of shoreline and 7,700 square miles of state waters from petroleum substances. When a spill occurs, OSPR works with partner agencies and deploys a team of wildlife officers, scientists and oil spill prevention specialists to manage the state’s response.
If you have a question you would like to see answered in the California Outdoors Q and A column, email it to CalOutdoors@wildlife.ca.gov.