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Stories from the valley

Supporting Salmon with Innovation

Contributed by Jennifer Harrison

Fish need water to live.  So it should come as little surprise that salmon have been severely impacted by the California drought with some salmon species in the Central Valley pushed to the very edge of extinction.  In such troubling times here is a bit of good news. Tiny juvenile Chinook salmon may be thriving in a rice field near you.

Fisheries biologist Jacob Katz with baby salmon

Fisheries biologist Jacob Katz is crusading for salmon.  He is working with a group of farmers, water suppliers, government agencies and environmental groups that have teamed up in support of this unique solution.  It’s called the Nigiri Project, named for a kind of sushi that features a slice of fish atop a wedge of rice, a nod to the fact that rice and fish co-exist on the farm fields where the project takes place.

Dr. Katz, who works for the fisheries conservation group California Trout, has teamed up with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Scientists, the state Department of Water Resources and Robins Rice Company. Together this diverse group is studying how temporarily raising small juvenile salmon in the bug-rich waters of winter-flooded rice fields may be an important step towards recovery of the species.

juvenile salmon

The Nigiri Project

This video shows the Nigiri Project in action.  It all started on in the rice fields of the Knaggs Ranch on the Yolo Bypass.  “We only grow rice 145 days out of the year,” explains rice grower John Brennan, who manages the property. “For the rest of the year, these rice fields can be used to produce other benefits such as habitat for wildlife.”  After rice fields were harvested in fall, could the idle winter fields be managed as a nurturing environment to help replenish California’s salmon runs?  That was the question the researchers set out to answer when they placed thousands of tiny hatchery salmon in 20-acres of winter flooded rice fields.  “We can still grow rice in summer, but in winter, when we are not growing rice, we can create really fantastic habitat for fish, ” says Katz.

Food matters

Just like people, fish need to eat. Fish eat bugs.  And habitat is key for bug production.  Bugs are more plentiful in some places than others. For instance they are much more abundant in flood plain wetland habitats as opposed to the swift and relatively food-poor waters of the Sacramento River.  The nigiri Project has demonstrated that winter rice fields can mimic natural wetland environments.  Five years into this project the results show that fish raised this way not only survive, but thrive!  They fatten up and grow at a phenomenal rate, some of the fastest growth rates ever documented in the valley, according to Katz.  Once released into the Sacramento River these stronger fish also have a greater chance of survival on their way to the ocean and better chance of coming back as large adults.

looking across standing water in fields

A win -win for farms and fish

The Nigiri Project may be a silver lining in the California drought, as it proves what is possible when collaboration is achieved between farmers, environmentalists and government agencies.  “By working together we can do both, we can have rice and have our salmon too,” explains Brennan.