Wayward Chinook salmon found themselves trapped at a gate in the Turlock Irrigation District main canal east of Turlock, waiting for a ride to better breeding grounds.
About 20 salmon, half of them in the 12- to 15-pound range and about 3 feet long, spent Monday morning swimming in circles around the canal where it meets lateral 4 between Vincent and Gratton roads.
There, in only a few feet of cold water, silvery females and red-tinged males raced at the gate, leaping into the air and thudding against a sluice leaking a steady pour of frothy water.
But one man’s froth is another species’ oxygen. That, combined with the chill canal water, will keep the furiously darting fish healthy until the California Department of Fish and Wildlife can get them to a river, said aquatic biologist Patrick Maloney.
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“With the hyper-oxygenated water and the cold, I’m not too concerned about their health (right now),” he said. But the fish are working against a destiny deadline to spawn and complete their life cycle, he added.
As soon as they enter fresh water, every cell in their body starts to die. They’re in a race with time.
“As soon as they enter fresh water, every cell in their body starts to die. They’re in a race with time,” Maloney said. They also take on the taste of the muddy river bottom, he noted, and are no longer good eating.
In his four years with TID, Maloney said he has never seen anything like it. “It’s very rare to have any salmon in the canal,” he said.
Maloney’s working theory is that the fish took a wrong turn during an end of season flush of excess water into the Merced and San Joaquin rivers around Nov. 2. An unusually high number of salmon are in the rivers right now, he said, “They just instinctively go upstream to spawn.”
TID had fully charged its canals for one last water delivery for the season, but a much-needed downpour intervened.
Chinook live an average of three to four years in the ocean before starting their one-way journey to spawn. They do not eat while migrating upstream.
“As we performed that best practice this year, significant local rainfall came on and around Oct. 28, causing irrigation demand to decrease, and forcing larger than anticipated operational spills into the rivers at the tail end of our canal system,” explained TID spokesman Herb Smart by email.
TID released the water back to the wild – little realizing the wild might get the wrong idea.
The salmon swam an estimated 7 to 10 miles over the next few days. The first few made it Monday morning to the barrier, where their floundering attempts to scale the gate attracted the attention of Armando Mota of Turlock as he walked his dog.
Mota sounded the alarm, and TID ditch tenders responded, using long spear-tipped poles to pull out large pieces of debris that might injure the fish. About 20 salmon had arrived by midday. Maloney said he has large nets he can use to catch the salmon once transport is arranged.
Until then – probably Tuesday, Smart said – the school continued its frustrated swim and Maloney went searching for the drain through which they came in to be sure no more salmon were taking a wrong turn in the procreational road.