Winter Chinook Salmon Is Still Endangered 28 Years After Listing

posted in: Spotlight | 0

Winnemem Wintu Run4Salmon Works to Bring Salmon Home to McCloud River

On March 6, 1989, the California Fish and Game Commission denied endangered species protection to the winter-run Chinook salmon that for many thousands of years spawned in the McCloud River that drains the Mount Shasta Glacier.

Hal Bonslett, the late founder and publisher of the Fish Sniffer, and I were there at the meeting in Sacramento on a crusade to stop the extinction of the fish, a unique Chinook subspecies that may have once numbered in the millions, but even as late as 1969, numbered over 117,0000 spawning adults.

The Department of Fish and Game Director at the time, Pete Bontadelli, argued that the population “was relatively stable over” the previous four years.

But as Bonslett testified, the alleged “relatively stable” population at the time was only two-tenths of one percent what the winter run population was 20 years before.

A small but vocal and passionate group, including Chuck De Journette of the Tehama Fly Fishers and John Merz, then the executive director of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, Bonslett and I argued before the Commission to put the fish on the state endangered species to prevent it from going extinct, but to no avail.

However, we kept going to the Commission meetings and working on the federal level for the listing of the winter run Chinook as endangered. Hal and I wrote one editorial after another calling for the designation.

We finally succeeded on the state level later that year when the fish was listed as “endangered.” The National Marine Fisheries Service also listed the winter run as “threatened,” five years after the agency received the petition calling for the listing. After receiving another petition, NMFS listed the fish as “endangered” in 1990.

Historically. winter-run Chinook spawned in the upper reaches of Sacramento River tributaries, including the McCloud, Pit, and Sacramento rivers. Shasta and Keswick dams now block access to the historic spawning areas.

The remaining fish were able to take advantage cool summer water releases downstream of Keswick Dam. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the population recovered, with the run reaching 117,000 in 1969.

However, beginning in 1970, the population experienced a dramatic decline, to a low of approximately 200 spawners by the early 1990’s, due to dramatic increases in water exports to corporate agribusiness through the State Water Project and Central Valley water project pumps in the South Delta.

In the years since the initial listing, run numbers have bounced up and down, with a number of measures taken, including the screening of unscreened diversions on the Sacramento, the removal of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam and some restrictions on Delta pumping resulting from federal biological opinions.

Unfortunately, record exports of water under the Schwarzenegger and Brown administrations and poor management of upstream reservoirs, combined with a historic drought, counteracted the proactive measures taken, leading to the decline of the fish in recent years.

It’s now September 15, over 28 years after the initial listing, and the winter run Chinook salmon is still in deep, deep trouble. I’m boating down the river with Rob Reimers of Rustic Rob’s Guide Service during the second year of the Winnemem Wintu Run4Salmon.

Caleen Sisk, her son Michael, Gary Thomas, a Pomo Roundhouse leader from Lake County, and documentary filmmaker Will Doolittle and I are on the river for the section of the run going from Sacramento to Colusa.

The Run4Salmon is a “participatory, prayerful journey” that took place this year from September 9 to 22 to “raise awareness and build public support to help protect and restore declining salmon populations, California river systems and indigenous life ways.”

Reimers and James Netzel of Tight Lines Guide Service donated their services to take leaders of the Tribe and their allies in their boats from Sacramento to Colusa on the Run4Salmon. Netzel drove the Pittsburg to Sacramento stretch of the river in his boat on September 12, while Reimers boated the section from Sacramento to Colusa section on This day.

For the Winnemem, the salmon are more than just a fish to catch and eat; they have historically been an integral component of their livelihood, culture and ceremonies for thousands of year.

“When the creator made us, he realized that we need a lot of help so he gave us a voice with the salmon,” said Chief Sisk. “When there are no more salmon, there will be no more Winnemem Wintu people. For this reason, we believe that we must do everything we can to bring back our salmon.”

This is a critical year for salmon. Only 1,123 adult winter Chinook salmon, once one of the biggest salmon runs on the Sacramento River and its tributaries, returned to the Sacramento Valley in 2017, according to a report sent to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

This is the second lowest number of returning adult winter run salmon since modern counting techniques were implemented in 2003, undercut only by the 824 that returned in 2011.

The run for salmon traces the route of winter run Chinook salmon from the estuary at Vallejo all of the way to the McCloud River where it enters Lake Shasta.

The tribe is working to reintroduce the original run of McCloud winter run Chinook. now thriving on the Rakaira River in New Zealand, where they were introduced over a hundred of years ago, back to their ancestral home on the McCloud. The tribe has set up a Go Fund Me site to raise money to conduct DNA testing of the Rakaira River salmon, as required by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow reintroduction of these fish.

We boat past the mouth of the American, past the Interstate 5 Bridge and then arrive at Verona. At Verona we see one angler, Bill, with a couple of salmon, the first fish we have seen caught this day.

We stop at the mouth of the river and Thomas sings a traditional song to the salmon and to the water. As we go past the mouth of the Feather, the river becomes much narrower. We arrive at Knights Landing, one of Rob’s favorite places to fish for late fall run Chinook salmon.

Chief Sisk and others in the boat are disturbed by the muddy water from Dunnigan Slough, irrigation drainage water, entering the clearer though still colored Sacramento. We also go past one pump upriver where some really foul-looking wastewater enters into the river, keep going up the river, past the Tisdale launch ramp, Grimes and Meridian and finally arrive at our destination, Colusa, where the bicycling segment of the run will begin.

“I’m glad to see the Winnemem Wintu pushing to get winter Chinook eggs from New Zealand to restore the winter run,” said Reimers. “That was something that I wasn’t aware of before the Run4Salmon. I’m hoping that they are able to get through the red tape and are able to bring the salmon back to the McCloud.”

To restore the salmon, the Tribe has been deeply engaged in a campaign to stop the raising of Shasta Dam, the construction of Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels project and agribusiness sponsored anti-salmon legislation in Congress.

“The Twin Tunnels and its companion proposal to raise Shasta Dam by 18 feet would push the remaining salmon runs toward extinction and inundate our ancestral and sacred homeland along the McCloud River,” Chief Sisk stated.

On the day before our trip, Chief Sisk, Run4Salmon organizers Desirae Harp and Niria Garcia, Winnemem Wintu members and their allies sang a song in front of the Sacramento Convention Center where the Mayors from throughout the state were convened:

“We are the voice of the salmon

And we’re coming home

Where we belong.”

For more information about the Run4Salmon, go to:

For more information about Rustic Rob’s Guide Service, contact Rob Reimers at 530-632-0051,