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California’s Extreme Heat Could Push Chinook Salmon Closer to the Brink of Extinction

A punishing heat wave is raising water temperatures in the Sacramento River

Lauren Saria is the editor of Eater SF and has been writing about food, drinks, and restaurants for more than a decade.

A brutal heat wave that’s been punishing the West and Southwest United States could result in the death of nearly all juvenile Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River, pushing the endangered fish even closer to extinction, according to officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. As reported by the Sacramento Bee, officials warned this week that recent and persistent temperatures over 100 degrees are making the Sacramento River — one of the pathways the fish traverse after hatching on their swim west to the Pacific Ocean — uninhabitable for the fish. This could mean the death of “nearly all” of the young fish in the river this season, the Bee reported.

The potentially dire outlook for the salmon provides a snapshot of how the effects of rising temperatures and the ongoing drought ripple throughout the state. “It’s an extreme set of cascading climate events pushing us into this crisis situation,” Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education, and outreach for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Eater via email Wednesday.

Large swaths of California including much of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta are under the most extreme level of drought, per the U.S. Drought Monitor. Just-hatched salmon can’t typically survive when water temperatures are higher 56 degrees; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is supposed to hold enough water in Shasta Lake so that when it’s released, it won’t cook the baby fish. But according to the Bee, there’s already been so much water released to farmers that there’s not enough left to keep the river cool enough for the salmon.

The loss of an entire year of juvenile salmon could have permanent and critical impacts on the future of the species. Because the salmon have an average three-year lifespan, losing this year’s young salmon “greatly increases the risk of extinction for the species,” Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Bee.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has taken some steps already to try to counteract the impact of the rising water temperatures. Traverso said millions of hatchery-raised Chinook salmon were transported by truck to San Pablo Bay, San Francisco Bay, and seaside net pens in an effort to “ensure the highest level of survival for the young salmon on their hazardous journey to the Pacific Ocean.”

But the threat to this young salmon also underscores the need for Californians to voluntarily reduce their water usage as much as possible, he added — “every drop counts.”

Chinook salmon provide $1.4 billion in economic value to the state of California and support 23,000 jobs throughout the state, according to the Golden State Salmon Association.