The Monterey Bay Trout and Salmon Project is back in the water after a few dry years
Following three years of no salmon and no salmon fishing, local fishermen can once again take up their poles on April 3. Among those excited for the opening of salmon season is the Monterey Bay Salmon & Trout Project (MBSTP), which plans to recommence its King Salmon release program after a three-year hiatus.
Founded in 1976, the MBSTP is a non-profit run almost entirely by volunteers (there is only one paid staff member) with the mission of restoring, conserving, and enhancing native Coho salmon and Steelhead populations and their habitats in the greater Monterey Bay area. MBSTP Treasurer Larry Wolf says that the voluntary aspect makes it “an uplifting program,” and he describes the MBSTP as “one of those programs that was instituted because people thought they could do a better job than government could to take care of our local environment.”
The MBSTP operates four main programs, one of which will involve a King Salmon release in early May. The MBSTP will place 120,000 King Salmon obtained from the Feather River Hatchery in Oroville, Calif., in net pens in the Santa Cruz Harbor for seven days while the fish become acclimated—a very important step, says Wolf, because “when a salmon tastes salt water for the first time, it sets its homing instincts in place, so it knows where to go back”—before releasing them into the harbor.
To the non-fisher, this may, at first, seem a little odd. Why release a bunch of fish just so that they can be re-caught by fishermen? Wouldn’t it be easier for people to just eat the fish directly from the hatchery and skip this middle step? But releasing the hatchery salmon serves an important purpose: it benefits the wild salmon population.
When the released hatchery fish near the end of their three- to four-year life, they return to where they first tasted salt water, which is, in this case, the Santa Cruz Harbor. By living out their life in the Monterey Bay area, they act as a kind of decoy (“A decoy that still tastes good,” says Wolf) and take the harvest pressure off wild salmon moving through the area. As the MBSTP website explains, “The objective of this program is to reduce fish losses during out migration thereby increasing the numbers of Chinook salmon available in Monterey Bay for sport and commercial fishery.”
As to what happens to the salmon once they’re released, it’s hard to say. “When we release the salmon, they immediately go out of the harbor into the Monterey Bay,” says Wolf. “They have very little problem migrating out. All of our fish, or at least 95 percent of them, get out to the ocean.” But once in the ocean, the fish are at the mercy of the conditions. Salmon do best during cold, stormy winters because wind and rain bring nutrient-rich water, which is vital to the food chain, from deep ocean canyons to the surface. In mild winters, the ocean food chain collapses. In 2005, the MBSTP released 30,000 Coho Salmon, their largest-ever release of that particular fish, expecting large returns. However, because of the mild winter seen that year and the two subsequent years, they had only three fish return in 2008, two in 2009, and one in 2010.
Because of the collapse of the ocean food chain in 2005, 2006 and 2007, salmon season was closed in 2008 and 2009 along the West Coast. Now ocean conditions have improved and, since the 2010 salmon season will be open this year, more salmon are expected to return, although they won’t know how many until the season starts.
In addition to their spawning and release programs, the MBSTP has run a Salmon and Trout Education Program (STEP) for almost 30 years. Every spring, the MBSTP takes 3,000 of their steelhead eggs, divides them into lots of 30, and gives them out to 100 classrooms throughout the Bay Area. The students watch for 30 days as they grow from fertilized eggs into fry (small fish). The classes then take a field trip to the San Lorenzo River, where they wade out into the water and look at the fish in their natural habitat.
“The goal is to give the children an idea of what is here and for them to become stewards of the local streams,” says Wolf. “[And] that they should try to take care of it and learn about the species and animals that live along the creek.”
To learn more about the MBSTP and its other projects (they also have Coho salmon and steelhead trout programs), visit their website at mbstp.org.