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California's salmon, steelhead get help

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- State and federal wildlife officials have unveiled ambitious plans aimed at helping endangered salmon and steelhead thrive again in Central California rivers.

The fish were abundant, migrating from the Pacific through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and up rivers, but dams were built, blocking 90 percent of passageways to their historical spawning areas at the heart of California. By the 1990s, the fish were nearly extinct and given protections under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Bonham, director of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Wednesday that California and the National Marine Fisheries Service worked jointly on complementary plans that include no mandates but rather voluntary buy-in from other agencies and groups to restore the fish populations.

“This is a bold vision, but it's entirely feasible,” Bonham said. “It's very doable, yet it hinges on solid partnerships to get to that goal.”

The plans target Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead.

Because the fish are protected, the National Marine Fisheries Service was required to prepare a recovery plan. The federal and state agencies have been criticized for not coordinating their salmon strategies, so Bonham said they worked in parallel to produce their plans, both released Tuesday.

California this year budgeted $38 million for measures such as monitoring salmon numbers, removing barriers to fish and repairing gravel beds where the fish spawn.

Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Sacramento, said they are considering build fish ladders on small dams and trucking salmon around large dams. She and Bonham said there are no plans for removing dams.

Water is contentious, especially during California's drought, but officials said they have support from salmon advocates, environmentalists and water associations.

It is expected to take years to enact the plans, Rea said, with the goal of removing the fish from the endangered status.

“They've been declining for decades,” she said. “It's a long-term process to turn that decline around and put them on a trajectory for recovery.”

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