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Baby-Sitting : Ventura County Anglers Prepare to Grow Their Own Salmon Fishery

Times Staff Writer

Nobody is likely to mistake the headquarters here of Central Coast Salmon Enhancement for a raging river.

On a barge half a mile from shore in the Port of San Luis, the home to four underwater pens for baby salmon is decidedly stationary. Anchors sunk deep in the natural harbor keep it that way.

If anything, the 120-square-foot vessel--strung with thick nets against marauding pelicans--resembles a floating penitentiary.

But Mother Nature has been fooled. So have close to 200,000 king salmon fingerlings.

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For six years fish have spent their first months of life under conditions that mimic the migration of salmon down a river from hatching grounds and through tidal estuaries to the open ocean. This is done by altering the water’s salinity over a 10-day period.

The spot near the mouth of San Luis Creek seems so much like home that thousands have returned as mature salmon ready to spawn.

Local Effort Planned

Now a group of Ventura County anglers plans to transfer the lessons learned in San Luis Obispo County to the Oxnard coast.

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The United Anglers of California Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that plans to run the project with volunteers, hopes to launch a scaled-down version of the San Luis Obispo barge next month, said James Donlon, a group member who is chairman of the Ventura County Fish and Game Commission.

United Anglers plans to raise between 3,000 and 5,000 salmon in a single pen for release, possibly next spring. If that works, the group will build three additional pens and raise 50,000 fish in each of the next three years beginning next summer.

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors this week approved a $20,000 grant to help establish the salmon-rearing project at the Channel Islands Harbor. The program, which would also be supported by donations, could cost up to $45,000 annually.

Organizers say the money would be well-spent.

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“If we’re careful, we can keep the resource around for future generations,” said Paul Cleveland, Salmon Enhancement’s project manager. He also will serve as a consultant for Ventura’s project.

Nobody expects the program to restore local fishing to its level of 60 years ago, when Donlon recalls reaching into Calleguas Creek and catching salmon with his bare hands. Dams, diversion and drought have ruined local streams for salmon spawning, Donlon said.

The project represents the second attempt at artificially boosting Ventura County’s fishery, state and local game officials said. Another project to raise silver salmon near the Channel Islands failed, possibly because those fish take longer to adjust to salt water, Donlon said. The Channel Islands effort could also open the gates to similar projects farther south. State Fish and Game officials say that Ventura County’s will be the first such project in Southern California and the second in California behind San Luis Obispo’s.

‘Lot of Interest’

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“There’s quite a bit of interest in this,” said Keith Anderson, fisheries management supervisor for the state Department of Fish and Game. Ventura officials believe that the project will give Ventura County tourism a shot in the arm by attracting anglers.

The program is based on a simple fact: After traveling in the ocean for three to five years, mature salmon return to spawn in the waters where they were raised. That usually means the rivers where they were hatched.

But as organizers of the San Luis program and others that preceded it in Oregon and Washington have found, salmon can be “printed” with the scent of that portion of the ocean where they spent their first three or four months.

For Central Coast Salmon Enhancement, a nonprofit organization, proof came last September, when the first wave of mature king salmon, which are not native to the area, returned to the port.

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“The water just boiled with salmon,” Cleveland said.

The project hadn’t always been so successful. In its first year, 96% of the fish died after workers dumped them into pens fully immersed in the ocean, Cleveland said. Salmon Enhancement cleared up that problem by gradually increasing the salinity of the net-enclosed pens over a 10-day period.

Bacterial Threat

The largest problem now, Cleveland said, is a deadly bacteria that infects the fish, but he has learned to keep it in check by mixing antibiotics with fish food. The mortality rate has dropped to 4%, he said.

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Cleveland, who gets the 2-month-old fingerlings in May and releases them between August and October, believes his program has cleared the path for Ventura County.

“We’ve gone through all the trial and error of the program,” he said.

Still, the Channel Islands project is a long way from lox. Because their program is getting started so late in the season, United Anglers will not be able to raise salmon with a fall run, which rules out the kind of salmon used by Salmon Enhancement. Organizers were looking for fingerlings from a spring run but had not succeeded in finding a source, Donlon said.

Also unclear is how United Anglers would handle any salmon that eventually do return to spawn.

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“You have to have a pretty good flow of cool water and gravel beds for the female to raise her eggs,” Donlon said. “The water flow in local rivers is inconsistent and they’re all dry now.”

At Avila Beach, low water levels and the presence of pollutants also make the San Luis Creek less than ideal for salmon spawning. However, Salmon Enhancement officials hope that a plan to clean the creek over the next 10 years will change that.

In the meantime, they are building a hatchery at the mouth of the creek where returning salmon can be caught and milked for their eggs.

United Anglers would like to follow San Luis Obispo into the hatchery business, too, but it’s too early to tell whether it will be able to do so, Donlon said.

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“This is a problem that will have to be addressed downstream,” he said.


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