Historic Milestone: Chinook Are Back In California's Upper San Joaquin

by Rene Henery, TU's California Science Director

Yesterday, under a warm fall sun, I participated in the release of adult fall-run Chinook (king) salmon into the upper San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.  This release marked a historic milestone not only for the San Joaquin Restoration Program but for conservation in CA: this group of salmon will be the first to spawn in the upper San Joaquin River in half a century!

This fall’s translocation and release of adult fall-run salmon is the latest step in the revitalization of California’s second longest river. After the completion of Friant Dam by the federal government in the 1940s, nearly 95 percent of the river's flow was diverted. As a result, 60 miles of the river ran dry, the second largest salmon population in the state was lost, and local fish and wildlife populations declined.

The modern chapter in the history of the San Joaquin began in 2006 with the signing of the Restoration Settlement Agreement.  After 18 years of litigation, the Agreement called for the re-establishment of healthy and self-sustaining populations of both fall-run and spring-run salmon in the San Joaquin, with long-term population targets of approximately 30,000 fish annually. The Agreement also stipulated the restoration of year-round flows to reconnect the river’s upper reaches to the San Francisco Bay Delta in all but the driest years.

The salmon released in this year’s landmark study will provide scientists from the state and federal agencies implementing the restoration with critical information on the migration and spawning behavior of adult fall-run salmon in the Upper San Joaquin River.  In the months and years ahead, the reintroduction process and associated research efforts will continue to ramp up, with more adult and juvenile salmon releases, a captive brood stock program for spring-run salmon at a newly developed conservation hatchery facility, and both volitional and assisted re-establishment of fall-run salmon from in-basin stocks.  Supporting the success of these efforts, the program will also complete river and floodplain habitat restoration as well as the large-scale retention and conveyance infrastructure improvements necessary to balance fish passage, flood control, and agricultural water delivery.

Many challenges still loom on the horizon for the San Joaquin River Restoration.  Upstream migration for yesterday’s experimental release group to their spawning grounds occurred, in part, on an interstate, and the potential for their progeny to successfully out-migrate in the spring remains an open question.  Salmon reintroduction is much more a process than an event.  Re-establishing self-sustaining populations in the heart of California’s most altered landscape will require years of additional research, active restoration, and continued dedication.

Even so, as I watched the released fish swim off, heard the ping of their acoustic tags in the receiver, and thought about this core connection between the river and the ocean being re-established, I could see our line through the obstacles, and the opportunity on the other end was palpable.  Call me sentimental; I believe.

From the outset, TU has been a critical player in the restoration of the San Joaquin River and its salmon populations.  This year’s release of adults is an accomplishment I hope we can all find a moment to internalize and celebrate.  For my part, after a little more than a year with TU and the restoration program, I feel honored to be a part of the process and newly inspired for the hard work ahead.

Good stuff.


To help restore the San Joaquin and write a letter of support, please click here: "Speak Up for the San Joaquin!" 

To learn more more about restoration of the San Joaquin, click here: "San Joaquin River Restoration Program"

And check out the video:



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