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Experts worry about future of Chinook salmon in the Central Valley

Although concerns about the shocking Chinook salmon decline in California have reached national proportions, the situation also hits close to home.

Merced County fishermen, hatchery and wildlife managers, and even those in the education field are left to wonder how the dropping numbers of salmon will affect future activities.

“It’s bringing it home,” said Gail Davis, fish and wildlife interpreter in La Grange for the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s not just the fish up north, it’s us. A lot of folks don’t even realize that there are Chinook here, but if we aren’t careful, we could lose them.”

Davis is the Central California program coordinator for Salmonids in the Classroom. This program allows teachers of all grades to receive salmon eggs from the Merced River Hatchery in Snelling and bring them into their classes.

Students learn about basic life cycles as they raise the eggs into tiny salmon. Then they release the fish into the river, much like two sixth-grade classes from Atwater’s Thomas Olaeta Elementary School did earlier this month.

Now is prime time for such releases, Davis said. About 165 students from different schools, including seventh-graders from Weaver Elementary School in Merced, came out last week for a tour of the hatchery and to make releases.

But Davis fears what could happen to the program as Chinook salmon numbers drop. This was the first year eggs were limited. Usually teachers can receive up to 90 eggs, but there weren’t enough to go around.

“Everyone received only 30, and there was barely enough for that,” she said. “We had to tell the teachers about the poor salmon runs. If it officially becomes an endangered species, it could hurt the program.”

Chinook salmon, also called king, typically range about 36 inches long and weigh about 30-40 pounds. They usually spend an average of three or four years in the ocean before returning to rivers to spawn.

Recent surveys found only 520 Chinook salmon in the Merced River, down from 1,470 the year before, and from 10,000 counted during 2001 and 2002.The Merced River Hatchery, as a result, is collecting less fish eggs and releasing less salmon into the river.

But this issue isn’t simply reserved to the Central Valley or even California, said Harry Morse, a Fish and Game spokesman who is focusing on the salmon issue. The dropping numbers have stretched up into Washington.

And problem is spilling over into fishing season.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council last week cancelled early-season ocean fishing off the coasts of California and Oregon. It also considered three options for the rest of the West Coast’s salmon season, said Jennifer Gilden, spokeswoman for the council.

One option puts this year’s Chinook fishing season to an end. Another only allows a limited amount of fishing for research. And the third allows sport fishing only on certain holidays, such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, Gilden said.

The final decision will be made in April.

While the council primarily deals with ocean fish, its decision will extend to the salmon coming back into the Merced River, Morse said.

Michael Martin, conservation director for the Merced Flyfishing Club, said the low fish numbers in the river and resulting options certainly has brought concern to his club’s about 100 members.

Although he often fishes the lower Merced River, he and other members also travel the state. Trips to Sacramento to fish the American River wouldn’t be the same if the Chinook salmon season shuts down.

But fishing the Merced River in this area might not change much. The Chinook salmon aren’t in the best condition when they reach this spot after their long trip from the ocean. “Not too many people fish for them here,” Martin said.

Whatever the location, however, a decline in a fish species always upsets fisherman. And everyone’s trying to figure out why it’s happening.

Ocean conditions are a key factor, Morse said. The food and habitat conditions in the ocean were poor in 2005-06, hurting the fish returning to the rivers now. And poor water quality in the rivers is another concern.

Morse said he spent last week with federal scientists trying to figure exactly what is behind the decline. “It still comes down to giving the best estimate possible,” he said. “And no one has the perfect reason why this would occur.”