Another Benefit of Hydro: Return of the Salmon Festival Unites Conservation and History

Serving as a modern form of a traditional Native American custom, the Return of the Salmon Festival at Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek in northern California celebrates the rich cultural heritage surrounding the salmon and steelhead species in the river. The festival, held every October since 1991, also highlights the conservation efforts of the Coleman National Fish Hatchery to preserve these fish species and create a recreational and commercial fishing market in the area.

A cultural history

For thousands of years, the Native American people have harvested salmon and steelhead trout for both cultural and spiritual significance. As an important food source, these fish were routinely sold and traded with neighboring tribes, settlers and explorers.

It was believed that the salmon and steelhead were a gift that came to them every year to feed and provide for the people. Each year when mature, the salmon, like a miracle, would migrate upriver to the spawning grounds of their birth, lay and fertilize their eggs, then die completing their life cycle.

The Return of the Salmon Festival is widely attended by locals and visitors of all ages.
The Return of the Salmon Festival is widely attended by locals and visitors of all ages.

Tribes developed elaborate rituals to celebrate the return of the fish. These salmon ceremonies were intended to ensure that abundant runs and good harvests would follow. Men and women shared the work of preparing the salmon for their winter food. Men took the fish from the water and then the women, helped by the children, sliced, hung, dried and smoked the flesh. The salmon and steelhead were the center of life for these native people.

As the state of California became colonized, more and more areas were developed and sprawling construction destroyed or polluted salmon habitat. While there are natural causes contributing to the decline of salmon and steelhead in California, human activities played a significant role in the loss.

Development, farming, livestock, logging, mining, municipal water supplies and the eventual construction of dams all contributed to the decline of aquatic environment.

With the construction of big dam projects, many of the natural migratory paths of spawning salmon were blocked. One of those dam projects was Shasta Dam, built from 1938 to 1945 in northern California on the Sacramento River. Part of the massive Central Valley Project, the dam was built for flood control, water supply, irrigation, salinity control in the delta, hydroelectric production and navigation of the river. Shasta Dam is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.

To regulate Sacramento River flows downstream from Shasta Dam, Keswick Dam (also owned and operated by Reclamation) was also built. Prior to the construction of the Shasta and Keswick dams, salmon and steelhead were free to migrate to the upper reaches of the Sacramento, Pit and McCloud Rivers to spawn. Once Shasta and Keswick dams were in place, the migratory fish were no longer able to travel upstream to their native spawning grounds.

Conserving the environment

While Shasta and Keswick Dams brought many benefits, it was also recognized that the salmon population would be negatively affected by their construction. In order to address this concern, as part of the Shasta Dam Project, Coleman National Fish Hatchery (Coleman NFH) was built as, and still is, a mitigation facility to handle the loss of natural salmon and steelhead spawning habitat.

Built on Battle Creek, one of the larger tributaries of the upper Sacramento River, Coleman NFH is the nation’s largest National Fish Hatchery. At Coleman NFH, returning fish are harvested and eggs are collected and fertilized. The resulting fish are raised to fingerling size. Then, in the spring, about 12 million fall run chinook salmon are released into the river system.

The Coleman hatchery features tanks of chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
The Coleman hatchery features tanks of chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Coleman NFH was authorized and constructed in 1942 as an integral part of the Central Valley Project. Fish production began in 1943. The facility’s goal is to ensure a healthy salmon population for commercial (ocean) and sport fisheries (ocean and river) for salmon and steelhead. Coleman NFH contributes substantially to the multi-million-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry in California.

The long-term production goals for Coleman NFH are as follows: 12,000,000 fall chinook salmon, 1,000,000 late fall chinook salmon, 250,000 winter chinook salmon, and 600,000 steelhead trout annually.

Honoring the tradition

To increase outreach and draw in visitors, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the hatchery, launched the first Annual Return of the Salmon Festival in 1991. During this one-day festival, held on the third Saturday in October, more than 5,000 visitors are attracted to the hatchery. The free event is designed to be family-oriented and educational. Many organizations (federal, state and private exhibitors) have informational booths focusing on water conservation, public land use and cultural history.

A popular attraction at the festival is the 3,500-gallon aquarium swimming with live salmon and steelhead. Visitors can also observe the fish up close in the hatchery’s holding ponds, where thousands of them are kept.

In the holding buildings, you can view the day-to-day hatchery operations such as spawning, egg incubation, and juvenile rearing. Visual information sites are located on the hatchery grounds to provide a narrative for visitors to understand life history, habitat requirements, and other biological information of these fish.

The recent construction completed on a fish viewing platform along the Battle Creek river bank now provides visitors the best view of the returning fish in their natural habitat. While enjoying the day, visitors are able to view large numbers of fall chinook salmon as they return up Battle Creek to the hatchery. It is exciting to watch thousands of salmon trying to jump over obstacles to travel upstream as they follow their natural instinct to spawn.

The returning 2012 run number was about 90,000, one of the largest runs in more than half a decade. The increase in the number of returning salmon was attributed to a good water year, increased spawning habitat efforts and continuing conservation projects implemented through the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

For those who cannot attend the Return of the Salmon Festival or who prefer to visit the facility at another time, the hatchery is open year-round for self-guided tours daily from 7:30 a.m. to dusk. The tours move through the hatchery building, the large rearing raceways where juvenile salmon are placed, spawning and visitor viewing area, holding ponds,the fish ladder from battle creek, battle creek itself, and the water treatment facility.

For the more adventurous, there is the Battle Creek Salmon Trail that was recently completed. The 2-mile-long path runs from the fish hatchery to the nearby Battle Creek Wildlife Area and offers the opportunity to view waterfowl and other wildlife. It is a great educational destination to take the family, get some exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. And it’s all free.

In addition, there is the possibility of catching a glimpse of salmon in the creek during the fall migration season. Hikers can return to the hatchery of their own volition, or they can take advantage of a scheduled shuttle ride back to Coleman NFH.

The Return of the Salmon Festival and the educational programs offered throughout the year are provided to inspire the next generation with the importance of conservation and recognize the current ongoing research and the important accomplishments taking place at Coleman NFH.

This is an experience you will want to check out!

– By Sheri Harral, public affairs specialist, U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation

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