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More than 17 million salmon will be released into San Francisco bay in massive bid to save species

Saving salmon from extinction in a drought
California is loading young salmon into tankers, driving them to the sea due to severe drought 04:46

For the second straight year, dry conditions are stoking fears of another devastating wildfire season. The lack of rain and snow is also threatening the survival of the salmon.

Captain Sarah Bates has been reeling in salmon off the California coast for nearly a decade. It's something that she looks forward to doing each time she is out on the waters.

"Catching fish never gets old, no matter how many times you've done it. Even when you're catching a hundred fish a day or more, catching the next fish is still fun everytime," Bates said.

Commercial and recreational salmon fishing generates more than $900 million annually for California. But with much of the state in a punishing drought, the fishing industry is feeling the stress.

"Nobody can survive an entire season that looks the way this one is looking. I mean, we are looking at an over 50% reduction of our traditional commercial fishing season," Bates said.

Because the state experienced one of the driest years on record, waterways that would normally carry young salmon out to sea are now hotbeds of dirt and dust. California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency from a cracked lake bed in April.

Iconic Chinook salmon need cold running water to survive. They hatch in rivers, then migrate to the sea to mature. After a couple of years, they swim back to where life began to reproduce, or spawn. But this year, studies show fish born in the wild will likely die.

"Survival has been shown to be very dependent on temperature as well as flow. And the temperatures that we're seeing now are anticipated to have pretty low survival for fish that are released in the river," environmental scientist Jason Julienne told CBS News' Jonathan Vigliotti.

That's why hatcheries are jumping with activity. To save the species, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched a massive operation which includes 700,000 juvenile salmon being sucked up by a tube and put into one of seven tankers. The fish are hitching a ride inside 146 trucks, traveling more than 100 miles to the Pacific. In all, more than 17 million salmon will be released into the San Francisco Bay. Nothing about this is natural, but it's their best chance for survival.

John McManus heads up an association of fishermen who advocate for salmon and ecosystem protections. He said the efforts being made to move the salmon bring a glimmer of hope.

"Well, actually, in the short term, this gives us hope. And we're happy that they're moving these fish. But it's also a very sad testament to what's happening with our rivers in the middle of this state," McManus said.

What's happening to California's rivers first became a concern nearly a century ago, when dams were built to distribute water to crops in the Central Valley. Damming is believed to have destroyed as much as 95% of wild salmon habitat. Hatcheries have helped make up for some of the loss, but this year's drought means they now have to make up for all of it. To prevent the tiny fish from becoming a buffet for seabirds, release sites are rotated. 

It's estimated about 80% of the young salmon taken for a ride will grow to maturity. Bates said she is appreciative of the work being done to protect the fish and preserve a way of life.

"Every fish feels like a little tiny victory," she said. "In reality, they're just one part of a much larger ecosystem. That ecosystem depends on water flows in the California rivers."  

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