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Fish and Game biologist Doug Killam displays Chinook carcass found in lower Battle Creek

Monster salmon could be harbinger of fish's recovery

San Francisco Chronicle 11/9/08
By Tom Stienstra

(11-08) 17:50 PST -- The biggest salmon in 29 years in California, 85 pounds and more than 4 feet long, was found washed up on a river bank last week, dead and spawned out. Fish and Game biologists discovered the giant fish on a creek that feeds the Sacramento River near Anderson in Shasta County.

The salmon likely weighed more than 90 pounds before it died, a big buck, according to Fish and Game biologist Doug Killam, perhaps far more when in the ocean and beginning its journey through San Francisco Bay, the delta and up the Sacramento River to its place of birth on Battle Creek. When salmon begin their migratory journey to freshwater, often swimming more than 500 miles to their spawning grounds, they stop eating.

The state record salmon is 88 pounds, caught in 1979 by Lindy Lindberg in an epic tale. Lindberg was fishing alone near Red Bluff and brought the fish alongside after a long fight. Then, like in Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," he strapped the 41/2-foot salmon to the side of his boat to make it back to the boat ramp.

Last week's giant fish is more good news in what has been a great year for the long-term future of salmon:

-- Genetics: The fact that the salmon appeared to have spawned successfully means that its rare genetics, a wild fish of landmark proportions, will be passed down to its progeny.

-- Future indicator: The giant salmon is another indicator that the ocean has been full of food this year, the richest year of marine food production in more than a decade. When plankton, krill, anchovies, squid and sardines are abundant, salmon can grow an inch and a pound per month.

-- 2010 a magic year? The ocean abundance is a key because more than 20 million salmon smolts were trucked from hatcheries in the north state to San Pablo Bay this summer and released from net pens in order to short-cut the juvenile salmon's journey to the ocean. That trip allowed the fish to get past unscreened water diversions, Delta pumping and verified ammonia pollution in the river near Sacramento. It will take two years for those fish to reach 15 to 30 pounds, so an ocean full of food makes the 2010 salmon season appear very promising off the Bay Area coast.

This comes after two disastrous summers in 2006 and '07, when there was little upwelling in the ocean and sparse marine food production. That lack of food caused the salmon population to crash, not only for Chinook, or king salmon, but also for Coho salmon on small coastal streams. The population of many species of marine birds, including murres, often considered an indicator species, also plunged in '07.

Some blamed global warming, or the delta pumps, but the consensus among scientists is that the crash was due to a scarcity of food in the ocean. That population crash was caused by a change in wind conditions and predicted in a Chronicle story in '06.

Yet this past spring, strong winds out of the northwest returned for the first time in three years. That set off upwelling, where cold, nutrient-rich water rises to the surface, and jump-started the marine food chain with plankton and krill. The high numbers of marine birds, blue whales, humpback whales, porpoise and other marine species that have spent the summer and fall off the Bay Area coast indicates that the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is again one of the richest marine regions in the world.

The giant salmon that washed up last week adds to the great news, and it's needed after a disastrous shutdown of the salmon industry. The number of adults was so low in the '06 and '07 classes that salmon fishing was prohibited this year off California and most of Oregon, and next year is a question mark.

At the Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, a tributary to the Sacramento River, about 13,000 adult salmon made the migratory trip this fall from the Golden Gate, according to Scott Hamelberg, manager of the hatchery.

Although that's down by more than half in a typical fall run at the hatchery, Hamelberg said it was enough to collect 15 million eggs and produce its goal of 12 million smolts for release next spring. He said the biggest salmon that made it to the hatchery this year weighed 53 pounds.

The world record for salmon caught on rod and reel weighed 97 pounds, 4 ounces, and was landed in 1985 in Alaska on the Kenai River, according to records kept by the International Game Fish Association. A 100-pounder caught on rod-and-reel has never been verified. But a salmon that weighed 126 pounds was caught in a fish trap near Petersburg in 1949, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Another 126-pounder was caught by a commercial fisherman off British Columbia. That fish was mounted and is displayed at the Vancouver International Airport.#

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