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In California, Salmon Hitch a Ride to the Sea

California is suffering from one of its worst droughts on record. The state’s reservoirs are one-third below normal, and farmers are allowing thousands of arid acres to go unplanted. More than 800 wildfires have broken out since Jan. 1, three times more than usual, and smog in Los Angeles is increasing without winter rains to clear the air.

It’s also a terrible time to be a fish. The dearth of rain has left long stretches of the Sacramento River too shallow to sustain the millions of young Chinook salmon that usually make the annual 200- to 300-mile swim to the Pacific Ocean. The fish that migrate each spring through the river delta to the sea are key to the state’s $1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry. In two years they will be mature enough for harvest—unless they die along the way. “Depending on how far those fish have to go, the longer they must travel through the system, the higher the losses,” says Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To stave off disaster, the state is giving the fish an alternate mode of transportation to the ocean: trucks. Convoys of four to seven tanker trucks, each bearing 130,000 silvery 3-inch smolts, leave a federal hatchery 180 miles north of San Francisco for a sloshy, three-hour drive to San Pablo Bay, where they’re held in netted pens to acclimate them to the chilly water before release. In all, 12 million juvenile fish will make the trip from the federal hatchery plus 18 million from four hatcheries owned by the state. They’ll return to California’s (hopefully replenished) rivers as adults to spawn.

Although the state typically trucks some of its hatchery fish to the ocean, this year’s haul will be about three times the usual number. As government programs go, it’s a bargain. It costs California taxpayers $1,500 a week to rent the tanker trucks, and the state expects to spend $150,000 total on trucking, including fuel costs. “Our 2016 fishing season may be riding on the survival of the fish in these trucks,” says Roger Thomas, chairman of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, an advocacy group in Petaluma. “We know that fish trucked around dangers lurking in the rivers and delta survive at much higher rates.”

The bottom line: California is trucking 30 million migrating salmon to the ocean so they don’t die in the state’s drought-stricken rivers.

Marois is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Sacramento.

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