Fish monitoring surveys in the San Francisco Estuary net different numbers of different fish species depending upon when and how they sample.

diagram of fish net trawl

Fish monitoring surveys in the San Francisco Estuary net different numbers of different fish species depending upon when and how they sample.

According to a new study published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, even surveys that target the same part of the water column can come up with significantly different catches. The study’s authors analyzed decades worth of data from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl, which spans from San Pablo Bay to the upper Delta; CDFW’s San Francisco Bay Study midwater and otter trawls, covering the South Bay to the central Delta; and the...
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West Coast Salmonids All Tired Out?

West Coast salmon and steelhead populations have declined steeply in the past century – a plight that biologists have primarily blamed on habitat loss. Dams, for instance, block adult fish’s access to historic spawning grounds, and juvenile survival is impacted by streamside development and water diversions. Now, it turns out, microplastic pollution may be a much bigger factor than anyone knew just several years ago. In 2019, scientists with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Los Angeles-based nonprofit 5...
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Eyeballing the Fish

Longfin smelt were what hooked Jim Ervin when he first learned about the UC Davis South Bay Fish Survey through a presentation at the 2012 Bay-Delta Science Conference. “They were catching them right there in our effluent channel!” recalls Ervin, a self-trained naturalist and former compliance manager for the San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. Intrigued, he contacted the researchers, rode with them on their next survey, and has been part of the project ever since, devoting more time to...
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Will Salmon Simmer Again?

After two critically dry years that coincided with Trump-era rollbacks to environmental protections, some iconic Delta fish are closer than ever to the point of no return. Last fall, for the second year in a row, the fall midwater trawl found zero wild Delta smelt, while a coalition of environmentalists and fishermen is asking a federal court to help prevent a repeat of 2021’s near-obliteration of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. Their lawsuit is just one of the balls to watch...
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Gone Fishing

As the weekend dawns and California slumbers, the sportfishers descend, like clockwork, on the banks and waves of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They carry nets for herring or poles for sturgeon, heavy and light tackle, bloodworms or anchovy or any number of delectable morsels to attract the desired target. They tread industrialized East Bay shorelines and marshy Delta banks, hop aboard sporty six-pack boats for more ambitious trips or humbler craft for a leisurely solo excursion....
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South Bay Trawls Show Fish Like Restored Shores

Twelve years ago, scientists at UC Davis began a survey of the southern end of San Francisco Bay — the Lower South Bay — to see how fish responded to the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Project. They discovered an unexpectedly diverse and robust aquatic community and a previously unknown spawning ground for the longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys), listed as endangered in California and a candidate for federal protection because of its declining numbers. The team, led first by Jim...
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Big Boulders, Big Benefits to Coyote Creek Fish

As a source of flowing water, upper Coyote Creek is unreliable at best. Though storms swell its banks in winter, Mediterranean-climate summers shrink this South Bay stream to a series of isolated pools by August. “By October right before the rains come, we’re down to these really small pools that have all the fish in them,” says retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ecologist Rob Leidy. Leidy and UC Berkeley fish ecologist Stephanie Carlson began monitoring the annual dry-down of upper...
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Murky Future for Herring

This winter, herring spawns in San Francisco Bay – visible from land as frenzies of birds and pinnipeds and even water discolored by herring milt – have been few and far between, according to recreational fishers who pursue the fish each year using hand-thrown cast nets. With few other eyes on the resource, it seems reasonable to assume that the downward trend in biomass documented through the 2019-2020 winter has continued. But nobody knows for sure. For decades, the California...
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Natives Who Can Rough It

Name a native fish. One that spends lots of time in the Delta. One that’s not a salmon, smelt, or sturgeon. One whose population isn’t plummeting, and in fact seems to be doing just fine. By now the list of possibilities has been shortened severely — though not exhausted. A number of native fish still ply Delta waters in stable numbers, but precisely because there are no restoration projects, monitoring programs, or conservation efforts designed to save them — or...
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Let’s Not Forget Suisun Marsh

I started sampling the fishes of Suisun Marsh in 1979 because one of my UC Davis graduate students was looking for a place to study tule perch, a live-bearing native fish. We found not only a lot of tule perch in the marsh, but also an abundance of other native fishes. Clearly, this was a good place to study species for which we had little information at that time. Two things helped with our new project. First, sampling boats could...
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Hatchery Delta Smelt Released to Wild

On a mild day between rainstorms in mid-December, wildlife biologists outfitted in rubber boots and orange lifejackets load drum after drum of precious cargo onto a small boat docked in Rio Vista, a town on the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There is little fanfare but the occasion is nonetheless momentous. The shiny silver drums contain thousands of Delta smelt — finger-size imperiled fish unique to the Delta — that were raised in a conservation hatchery. Today marks...
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Sturdy Sturgeon

A 90-year-old Australian lungfish at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences has received a lot of press lately, but there is a wild fish species living in the San Francisco Bay that has the potential to live that long or longer — or so we think. While one white sturgeon caught in the Columbia River Basin was estimated to be 104 years old, the life expectancy of white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, which includes the Central Valley population endemic to the San...
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The Complexities of Monitoring Steelhead

For more than two decades, steelhead — listed as federally threatened in 1997 — have been monitored throughout the state. However, until recently that monitoring has been a haphazard affair. Each local jurisdiction has established a different system, using different methods with different degrees of intensity, according to a 2018 study examining monitoring within the Central Valley and its environs. In some areas, primarily the Sacramento River watershed, which drains the vast northern part of the valley, data has been...
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Better Living Through Fish – Editor’s Desk

I come from a long line of fisherfolk. My grandparents had a tiny cabin on a Quebec lake. We visited some summers. My grandfather let me drive the big white speedboat at a snail’s pace while he smoked cigars and trolled for trout off the stern. Once, when I caught one bigger than his catch-of-the-day, he “accidentally” knocked it back into the lake with the net. On the dock, we’d sunbathe while he cast lines overhead with a precision worthy...
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Scientists in the Central Valley are honing a novel way of giving young salmon the nourishing benefits of wintertime floodwaters without undertaking costly floodplain restoration work.

The method, being practiced along the Sacramento River, mimics the flood patterns of natural Sacramento Valley wetlands by diverting water onto floodplain farm fields, retaining it there for three weeks, and finally flushing the water—now rich with zooplankton and invertebrate protein—back into the river. Onsite studies have shown that salmon smolts grow faster when provided with this supplemental nutrition source, giving the method promise as a tool for boosting survival rates of outmigrating juveniles and, ultimately, helping sustain imperiled Chinook...
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A large pulse of water sent through the Yolo Bypass in summer 2016 boosted phytoplankton biomass and food web conditions in Cache Slough and the lower Sacramento River, a new report confirms.

 “Our goal was to improve estuarine habitat by increasing net flows through the Cache Slough Complex to enhance downstream transport of lower trophic-level resources, an important driver for fish such as the endangered Delta Smelt,” write the authors—including esteemed (and recently retired) California Department of Water Resources lead scientist Ted Sommer—in the latest issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. The pulse occurred over three weeks in July, a time when flows in the region above Cache Slough are...
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New Way to Sleuth Out Fish IDs in the Field

The CRISPR technique used to edit DNA has been formulated into a tool that can distinguish between similar-looking California fish species for conservation research. Called SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing), the tool can tell the difference between species with speed and accuracy. Better yet, it is both inexpensive and can be run while researchers are in the field. “It puts the power in the hands of the field biologist to make the most informed decision versus waiting sometimes days...
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Smelt cam photo

Monitoring Delta smelt with an underwater camera could be safer and more effective than with a traditional trawl.

Standard smelt surveys rely on the use of boat-driven nets, which trap fish by funneling them from the wide mouth of the net to the closed end (known as the cod end). To check their catch, researchers must pull the net and its contents from the water. But this additional handling can harm and even kill the same fish that wildlife agencies are trying to save with the support of robust, long-running monitoring efforts. There may be a better way:...
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photograph of beautiful tree overhangin a river

Modern water management practices damp down natural river patterns and produce streamside forests that “live fast and die young.”

Such practices also hasten the destruction of an important and dwindling habitat. Melissa Rohde of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) and colleagues analyzed five years of high-resolution satellite and water resource data showing vegetation greenness along California rivers. Trees growing alongside the 30 percent of state rivers with natural flows decreased in greenness from the wet spring through the dry summer months, the scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy...
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Leading with Science: DWR’s Ted Sommer To Retire

A few months before his retirement in October 2021, Ariel Rubissow Okamoto asked Ted Sommer, lead scientist for the California Department of Water Resources, to reflect on his accomplishments and hopes for the future. Sommer is a leading researcher on native fishes, and has published more than 60 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific publications since 2001. Sommer began his long career at DWR in 1991 under Dr. Randy Brown. Early on he founded the Feather River fish monitoring program, but his...
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