How Bad Is California’s Drought? Migrating Salmon Are Being Trucked To The Ocean

California’s extreme drought is putting a serious wrench in salmon swimming routes.

How Bad Is California’s Drought? Migrating Salmon Are Being Trucked To The Ocean
[Image: Salmon via Shutterstock]

California is suffering a record-breaking drought and 75% of the state is currently in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions. As a result, seasonal water activities are taking a big hit. White-water rafting trips and fishing tournaments have been canceled. Tourism is down. And now, migrating Chinook salmon are even being transported to the Pacific Ocean by truck because the river swim is too perilous.


The Associated Press reports that, for this year’s migration, tanker trucks are carrying millions of juvenile salmon by highway instead of river. While that’s something wildlife agencies do for some hatchery-raised salmon every year in order to route them around dams and irrigation pumps, this year the agencies are trucking 50% more–27 million–young smolts.

From the AP:

Each spring, the Coleman National Fish Hatchery usually releases about 12 million smolts into Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River near Redding. But this year, it trucked 7.5 million of them to San Francisco Bay because the drought had made the 300-mile swim too perilous.

Still, like most extreme workarounds, it’s not an ideal solution. When the fish grow up, they won’t know how to make it back to their homes to spawn in three years, which could hurt the salmon fishing industry down the road. The AP reports:

“Because that imprinting cycle is broken, it’s unlikely that many fish will make it back to Coleman. In other words, they stray. They won’t find that scent to where home is,” said Scott Hamelberg, who manages the Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

Droughts have always been a problem in California, but scientists believe that climate change may be contributing to the record-breaking severity of the current one. That trend stands to continue: According to the state’s climate adaptation strategy, extreme weather, warmer temperatures, and an earlier snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada are all likely effects of the warming predicted for this century. The plight of the juvenile salmon this year are just one example of the hard-to-predict effects of a warming planet.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.