Berryessa advocates fear drought will kill off kokanee fishery

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By Todd R. Hansen McNaughton Media Tullie MacFarland has been fishing at Lake Berryessa for nearly 60 years. The Folsom resident, who was raised near Fresno and lived in Vacaville in her early 20s, said she comes out as much to be on the water as for the fishing, but probably would not do the one without the other. “I am concerned about the drought and the fishing,” MacFarland, 68, said while at Berryessa with a cousin May 20 for a day trip. “I cannot speak about fish planting or stocking or anything like that, but I know the fishing was pretty miserable a few years ago when the drought was really bad,” she said. She actually fishes more for bass than kokanee, but does both. Cameron Smith, 65, known in the area as Captain Cam, can speak about the fish planting at Lake Berryessa – or what he believes is better described as a very limited fish planting, at least salmon stocking. Combine that with the drought and Smith said kokanee anglers at Berryessa can expect the fishery to be destroyed if the state Department of Fish and Wildlife does not increase the planting program. “It’s almost guaranteed because we are going into this drought with less of a (kokanee) population than we did in 2014,” Smith said. He said the kokanee fishery was all but dead from 2014 to 2018. Kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon. Ryan Watanabe, a fishery biologist for state Fish and Wildlife who has Lake Berryessa in his area, said Berryessa endures the droughts better than most lakes, though water temperature can be a concern. Kokanee prefer temperatures between 50 and 55.4 degrees, so as water levels drop, those temperatures rise. As far as kokanee distribution, this year Berryessa did better than some of the other 15 reservoirs that are stocked. “Our (traditional) annual allotment is 755,000 (fish statewide) and this year we released 602,690, which was about 80% of the target,” Watanabe said. Berryessa received its full 50,000 allotment of kokanee fingerlings, one of five lakes to receive that amount. Typically, eight reservoirs would get that level, so three received fewer than usual this year. Only Shasta Lake, with 150,000 fish, and Bullards Bar in Yuba County, with 60,000, received more, Watanabe said. Similarly, Lake Berryessa received 60,000 chinook, or King salmon, which ranked fifth among the 10 lakes that are stocked. Berryessa traditionally would be one of four lakes to get 100,000 fish. Smith said the state used to plant 150,000 kokanee and another 150,000 King salmon at Berryessa. There are 23 kokanee sport fishing sites listed by the state Fish and Wildlife, including Lake Berryessa. Nine of the sites are in the Sacramento foothills ranging east up to Lake Tahoe and as far north as Bucks Lake above Chico. Smith said the state, and through a contract with the nonprofit Kokanee Power, have turned what was once a thriving salmon fishery into a shadow of itself. “They are managing the lake as a trophy kokanee (lake), thinking if they plant fewer fish, maybe the fish would grow larger. But that is not what happened,” Smith said. “It was already producing the biggest kokanee in the state, and had the biggest population.” Kokanee Power is listed as a nonprofit on its website, which states that the organization is “dedicated to the enhancement of California and Oregon inland kokanee, trout and salmon fisheries.” There was no response to an email seeking comment. There was no phone number provided. Watanabe confirmed that Lake Berryessa’s allocation was reduced in years past to manage the kokanee as a trophy fishery, but said that Kokanee Power is not part of deciding fish allocations. The biologist does not doubt the organization may lobby for more fish in certain locations, but that happens across the board. He said he gets calls from bass fishermen who want more salmon and trout planted at Berryessa to provide the bass with more food. Smith said the thriving bass population at Berryessa takes a toll on the salmon populations, and with lower planting numbers, fewer survive and grow to catchable sizes. Smith, a Vallejo native and Benicia resident, describes Lake Berryessa as the only cold water, inland salmon fishery that is located in proximity to the 20 million Bay Area residents. “If (Gov. Gavin) Newsom wanted to increase Fish and Wildlife opportunity they would do so starting with Lake Berryessa,” Smith noted in an email. He said he sent all his information and concerns to the state, to Solano and Napa county officials, the city of Napa, as well as to state and federal representatives. That material went out about two weeks ago. The only response he has received to date was from U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who directed Smith to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Smith said he included the federal representatives because Berryessa is a federally owned lake. The federal government contracts with the state to manage the fisheries. He wonders if that federal ownership is one of the reasons why the state, he said, gives preference to other inland lakes. More likely, he asserted, it is because those other lakes are in areas where members of Kokanee Power live and fish. “For the last 10 years they (the state Department of Fish and Wildlife) and Kokanee Power have managed and maintained Lake Berryessa salmon fisheries levels at the most minimal levels possible that have caused a complete collapse and (was) lost for a number of years during the last drought, which will happen again with the drought,” Smith wrote. “And due . . . to the very limited amount of fish plants that they are providing to Lake Berryessa.” Smith said he does not believe taking fish for Berryessa would damage the fish populations in the valley and foothill lakes. “What they are doing in the other lakes is they are overstocking and so this would not affect their populations at all,” Smith argued. Moreover, he said lakes like Pardee, New Melones and Tahoe all have kokanee spawning programs. Another factor that could come into play is the effort by Napa County to re-establish the once-thriving resort industry at Lake Berryessa. MacFarland said her family used to stay at the resorts, coming up from the Fresno area for a week or two, and fishing was always a centerpiece of those trips. Watanabe said Fish and Wildlife has not been part of any fishery management discussions in relation to the redevelopment of the resorts, but he stays abreast of the county’s work. He said there have been discussions about doing surveys once the resorts are up and running to see if fishery use is climbing, and checking food sources, all of which could influence changes in the management plan. Calls to Napa County seeking comment were not returned.

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