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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Farm to Fish: Lessons from a Multi-Year Study on Agricultural Floodplain Habitat


Large areas of California’s historic floodplain have been separated from adjacent river channels by levee construction, allowing the development of an extensive agricultural industry. Based on successful partnerships between agriculture and conservation groups to support migrating waterfowl, we examined whether seasonally flooded rice fields could be modified to provide off-channel rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. During winter and spring of 2012-2017, we conducted a series of experiments in Yolo Bypass and other regions of California’s Central Valley using hatchery Chinook Salmon as a surrogate for wild Chinook Salmon, the management target for our project. Overall, we found that seasonally flooded fields are highly productive, resulting in significantly higher levels of zooplankton and high Chinook Salmon growth rates as compared to the adjacent Sacramento River. We found similar results for multiple geographical areas in the Central Valley, and in different cover types, such as non-rice crops and fallow areas. Although field substrate type did not detectably affect fish growth and survival, connectivity with upstream and downstream areas appeared to drive fish occupancy, because rearing young salmon were generally attracted to inflow in the fields, and not all of the fish successfully emigrated off the fields without efficient drainage. In general, we faced numerous logistic and environmental challenges to complete our research. For example, periodic unmanaged floods in the Yolo Bypass made it difficult to schedule and complete experiments. During severe drought conditions, we found that managed agricultural habitats produced low and variable salmon survival results, likely because of periodically high temperatures and concentrated avian predation. In addition, our project required substantial land-owner time and effort to install and maintain experimental fields. Recent and future infrastructure improvements in Yolo Bypass could substantially improve options for experimental work and broaden efforts to enhance salmon habitat.

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