Juvenile salmon to be released Wednesday at Santa Cruz Wharf

Young salmon being released.
(Via Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project)

State officials and the nonprofit Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project are set to release 160,000 juvenile chinook salmon off the Santa Cruz Wharf after dusk Wednesday, with the public invited to watch and learn more about efforts to boost the local population.

This story was originally featured in this week’s Lily Belli on Food newsletter. Be first the first to hear about food and drink news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Lily’s email newsletter here and text alerts here.

The closure of California’s 2023 commercial and recreational salmon fishing season came amid ongoing concerns about dwindling fish populations and poor habitat conditions.

As part of efforts to help boost ocean salmon populations, state officials and members of a local conservation nonprofit organization will release 160,000 juvenile chinook (king) salmon into Monterey Bay from the Santa Cruz Wharf on Wednesday. The goal is that these fish will grow to adulthood at sea and eventually be caught locally.

Putting the young fish, known as smolts, directly into the ocean rather than into riverways helps them avoid invasive predators and poor habitat conditions in the California Bay-Delta, including water pollution, warming water temperatures and low water levels. The Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project (MBSTP) works with the state to release salmon into Monterey Bay annually.

The fish that will be released Wednesday are marked with what are called coded wire tags, which helps track populations and see how these efforts are working, according to Tim Obert, a local fisherman and MBSTP member.

“We believe these ocean releases are attributing to about 60% of our catch,” said Obert. “We’re seeing a much bigger survival rate because of the way they’re released.”

Coho salmon have been documented for the first time in Mill Creek, to the surprise of ecologists and conservationists...

For almost 50 years, MBSTP has worked with local, state and federal agencies to support the recovery of the state’s salmon and steelhead populations. In addition to helping release salmon into local waterways, the organization also operates an integrated conservation hatchery program. At its hatchery facility in Scott Creek, near Davenport, it produces as many as 35,000 young coho salmon annually that can then be put into the wild.

“Salmon isn’t going to bounce back naturally until river habitats are healthier [and] hatcheries are better,” said Obert.

The smolts that California Department of Fish & Wildlife staff and MBSTP members will release into Monterey Bay on Wednesday evening are currently about 6-8 inches. It will be about two years before those fish can be caught and kept, as state regulations dictate that chinook salmon caught commercially must be at least 27 inches. The minimum size guideline for recreational salmon fishing is slightly smaller.

Young salmon.
(Via Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project)

MBSTP members will have a table set up on the wharf starting at 5 p.m. to provide more information about the release and the work being done by the organization to help recover the state’s salmon and steelhead populations. The fish release is expected to happen after dusk, closer to 8 or 8:30 p.m., and the public is invited to watch and learn more.

While such efforts are key to restoring salmon populations, that won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, fishermen like Obert must find new sources of revenue in light of this year’s closure, and they’re continuing to work with state and federal officials to get disaster funding to help offset the losses. For Obert, that means he’s gearing up to head north to go tuna fishing. He’s hopeful that efforts like this week’s event will help restore fish populations and create more opportunities for the state’s fishing industry in the future.

A new documentary about the salmon population in the Santa Cruz Mountains is set to air on KQED-TV later this week. UC Santa Cruz alumnus Kyle Baker directed “Southern Range: Salmon in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” which was produced by the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and the university’s Fisheries Collaborative Program. It will air Friday at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, June 21, at 8 p.m. on KQED (which can be streamed live here).

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