FRESNO — For the first time in more than 60 years, chinook salmon are spawning in the San Joaquin River near Fresno -- with the help of a truck ride.
State biologists have trapped more than 90 of the big fish in the San Joaquin near the Merced River in Merced County. The fish can't get farther upstream because of dams, so biologists are giving them a lift to places near Fresno.
"This is historic," said scientist Monty Schmitt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental watchdog that sued in 1988 to restore the long-dried river and the salmon.
Schmitt joined California Department of Fish and Game biologists and environmental leaders recently to show off the trap-and-haul operation to the media. The operation has been going since mid-October and is expected to continue for the next few weeks.
About a third of the fish have been outfitted with acoustic tags that allow them to be tracked. Signals from the tags are picked up by a dozen monitors along the river.
Gerald Hatler, environmental program manager on the restoration for Fish and Game, said valuable information can be accumulated in the coming months.
"We will collect as much data as possible, including the places where the salmon actually spawned in the river," Hatler said.
"It will help prepare us for restoring the salmon." Scientists have a lot of catching up to do. Salmon runs died on the river more than six decades ago after Friant Dam was built and dried a long stretch of the river. The river's water was used to rescue the dying farming industry on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Federal and state wildlife agencies began restoring the river in 2009, three years after the long-running lawsuit was settled.
Water releases from Friant have kept the river wet much of the past three years while biologists have planted and tracked juvenile salmon. Now biologists are studying adult salmon.
On Wednesday, a state wildlife crew snagged five adult salmon north of Los Banos near the Hills Ferry Barrier, which prevents salmon from swimming farther upstream where their paths are blocked by dams.
The five fish were placed in a water tank on a trailer and hauled to Camp Pashayan, near Highway 99 and Herndon Avenue.
The truck stopped periodically for biologists to check the fish and make sure they were surviving. But one fish, which experts said was in poor health, died en route.
"Sometimes it happens," said Hatler. "These are older fish and they have come a long way already." Two live fish were released at Camp Pashayan and the other two were released farther upstream, closer to gravel beds that scientists believe are good spawning habitat for chinook salmon.
Since the trap-and-haul operation began in October, leaders have received reports from the public about seeing salmon near Fresno. Fish and Game leaders say any fishing enthusiast who happens to hook one of these salmon must release it.
But they said there are no other restrictions.
The salmon are considered fall-run, meaning the adults migrate upstream to spawn in the fall. The young produced by the salmon being trapped and hauled this fall will become part of an experimental population.
Wildlife crews will trap many of the young and release them in various parts of the river, Hatler said.
Some probably will be released in the Merced County stretch of the river, where they would be able to swim to the Pacific, he said.
During the media event Wednesday, Kerman resident Walt Shubin, 82, a long-time river advocate, said the restoration is moving too slowly. The restoration agreement had called for the salmon runs to be started up at the end of next month.
But bypass channels for the fish to go around Mendota and Sack dams have not yet been built, so the runs have been delayed.
Some see trap-and-haul as a step forward and a sign of hope. Meghan Hertel of Audubon California said the restoration is much more than water and salmon.
She said it will connect Valley families with nature, wildlife with a natural place to live and improved water quality for everyone.