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Salmon Cam: A Live Look at Migrating Fish

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By Lisa Hulette, senior project director, Salmon Initiative, The Nature Conservancy

UPDATE. October 30, 2013. Great news! As of October 25, 2013 over 7,500 Chinook salmon have made their way back to the Shasta River and potentially to the Conservancy’s Big Springs Ranch. We don’t know the final count of salmon in the river, but this is promising news and demonstrates that numbers of salmon are increasing in the river. In addition to the Chinook, the endangered coho salmon have also been spotted in the Shasta River. It is early to tell if they will spawn in the Shasta River or make it to Big Springs Ranch, but be on the lookout for these beautiful and rare fish. The camera will probably need to come out of the river by Thanksgiving due to freezing cold weather, so check out these amazing fish while you can.

Welcome home, salmon.

This fall, we’re pleased to showcase Salmon Cam, a live view at the Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout that are spawning on The Nature Conservancy in California’s Shasta Big Springs Ranch.

It’s a remarkable underwater look at iconic fish. But perhaps the story behind this camera is even more incredible.

Just five years ago, you could have watched this camera for months and probably not seen a salmon. Maybe one or two, but that was it. Now — as of October 7, 2013 — there are 2,900 adult Chinook salmon heading toward the Shasta River and the Conservancy’s ranch. And that is just the beginning.

The Conservancy and partners worked on restoration projects to welcome salmon back to waters where they historically spawned. And it worked — dramatically.

Last year, more than 35,000 Chinook made their way to the Shasta River. These large numbers were only possible due to a unique collaboration between ranchers, water districts, agencies and conservation organizations.

The Conservancy installed Salmon Cam to show you just how well the restoration has worked. And it also can help chart a hopeful future for salmon throughout California.

Salmon are more imperiled in California than any other western state. Salmon are vital to California’s ecology and economy, including a $1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry. One of the key threats is a lack of information on the number of spawning salmon in California coastal waters.

To track the trends of salmon and to target future restoration investments, the Conservancy has turned raw data into useful conservation information. For the first time ever an analysis of the state of California salmon and associated restoration efforts has been completed by the Conservancy, using data provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, water districts and local watershed organizations.

You can find out how many salmon are in a particular California watershed at the Salmon Snapshots web site.

These “Salmon Snapshots” will help guide statewide salmon recovery to the places where conservation can have the greatest impact. Luckily, there is a strong commitment to salmon restoration; since 2000, more than 1,200 restoration projects have been completed in salmon and steelhead watersheds.

There’s much more to be done if salmon recovery is to become reality, of course. But this is a tremendous start — as we hope the Salmon Cam clearly demonstrates.

Enjoy the fish watching — and learn more on how you can help protect California’s salmon heritage.

A Field Guide to the Salmon Cam

Fish identification

Coho Salmon: The size of an adult coho may measure more than 2 feet in length and can weigh up to 35 pounds. However, the average weight of adult coho is 8 pounds.

Coho salmon have dark metallic blue or greenish backs with silver sides and a light belly and there are small black spots on the back and upper lobe of the tail while in the ocean. The gumline in the lower jaw has lighter pigment than does the Chinook salmon. Spawning fish in inland rivers are dark with reddish-maroon coloration on the sides.

Chinook salmon: Chinook salmon are easily the largest of any salmon, with adults often exceeding 40 pounds. Chinook mature at about 36 inches and 30 pounds. Chinook salmon are very similar to coho salmon in appearance while at sea (blue-green back with silver flanks), except for their large size, small black spots on both lobes of the tail, and black pigment along the base of the teeth.

Steelhead Trout: Steelhead trout can reach up to 55 pounds in weight and 45 inches in length, though average size is much smaller. They are usually dark-olive in color, shading to silvery-white on the underside with a heavily speckled body and a pink to red stripe running along their sides.

They are a unique species; individuals develop differently depending on their environment. While all O. mykiss hatch in gravel-bottomed, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated rivers and streams, some stay in fresh water all their lives. These fish are called rainbow trout. The steelhead that migrate to the ocean develop a slimmer profile, become more silvery in color, and typically grow much larger than the rainbow trout that remain in fresh water.

Migration calendar

At the Conservancy’s Shasta Big Springs Ranch the fall run depends on the degree of the juvenile’s maturation at the time of river entry, the temperature and flow characteristics at the mouth of the Klamath River, and their actual time of spawning. Freshwater entry and spawning timing are believed to be related to local temperature and water flow regimes.

Adult female Chinook will prepare a redd (or nest) in a stream area with suitable gravel type composition, water depth and velocity. The adult female Chinook may deposit eggs in 4 to 5 “nesting pockets” within a single redd. Spawning sites have larger gravel and more water flow up through the gravel than the sites used by other Pacific salmon. After laying eggs in a redd, adult Chinook will guard the redd from just a few days to nearly a month before dying.

What are the fish doing?

Both Chinook salmon and coho salmon adults migrate from a marine environment into the freshwater streams and rivers of their birth in order to mate (called anadromy). They spawn only once and then die (called semelparity).

Juvenile Chinook may spend from 3 months to 2 years in freshwater before migrating to estuarine areas as smolts and then into the ocean to feed and mature. Chinook salmon remain at sea for 1 to 6 years (more commonly 2 to 4 years), with the exception of a small proportion of yearling males (called jack salmon) which mature in freshwater or return after 2 or 3 months in salt water.

Unlike Chinook and coho, steelhead trout spawn more than one time (known as iteroparity). Their migrations can be hundreds of miles.

Adult Chinook and coho salmon return to their stream of origin to spawn and die, usually at around three years old. Some precocious males known as “jacks” return as two-year-old spawners. Spawning males develop a strongly hooked snout and large teeth. Females prepare several redds (nests) where the eggs will remain for 6-7 weeks until they hatch.

As the time for migration to the sea approaches, juvenile coho salmon lose their parr marks, a pattern of vertical bars and spots useful for camouflage, and gain the dark back and light belly coloration used by fish living in open water. Their gills and kidneys also begin to change at this time so that they can process salt water.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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