A Chinook salmon recently caught in the channel that connects Lake Merritt to the Bay. There have been multiple salmon sightings in the lake following recent rains. Credit: Bob Noonan

On December 4, Oakland resident Peggy Rehm went out to the south shore of Lake Merritt as she normally does on Saturdays to admire the birds and look for other wildlife that sometimes comes in through the channel connecting the lake to the bay. “I’m a huge fan of Lake Merritt and her critters,” Rehm said. “I often see bat rays, stripers, and I’m always looking for birds.” 

It proved to be a memorable day for Rehm, who struck up a conversation with a man who was fishing recreationally nearby, on the bridge by the Laney College football field. The man told Rehm to look down at the water, and she was shocked by what she saw: several Chinook salmon swimming in the channel. “He was very excited by the salmon coming through,” said Rehm. “He said he had caught three earlier in the week, and then he pointed them out to me.”

Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, have been spotted in East Bay rivers and streams since late fall. According to Joe Sullivan, who manages the fisheries program for the East Bay Regional Park District, salmon have been showing up in the hundreds, something that hasn’t happened for two decades in part due to drought conditions throughout the region. 

“It makes me super excited and I think it shows the resiliency of this species,” Sullivan said, who counts the Chinook salmon as one of his favorite fish. “They’re definitely in the top ten.” 

Chinook salmon live in the Pacific Ocean but breed in freshwater rivers and streams. Shortly after giving birth, the salmon die and either become nutrients for nearby plants or a tasty meal for birds, raccoons, bears, and other wildlife. 

The resurgence of salmon in Oakland and other parts of the East Bay is due to heavy seasonal rainfall in the Bay Area, said George Neillands, a senior environmental sciences supervisor for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “In a year like this, where we got rain from that big October storm, we have lots of attraction flows from all the streams around the bay,” Neillands said, referring to the influx of freshwater that creates ideal breeding conditions for salmon. “So these fish fall straight into these streams looking for a place to spawn.”

Apparently, some are now looking in Lake Merritt, which isn’t unheard of, but highly unusual. 

A dead chinook salmon spotted in Lake Merritt. Credit: Peggy Rehm

“They come in when there’s a big influx of freshwater from the bay, which would be through the Lake Merritt channel,” explained Katie Noonan, co-chair of Rotary Nature Center Friends, a citizen’s group advocating for the Rotary Nature Center in Lakeside Park that works to protect Lake Merritt wildlife. Noonan noted that a number of the salmon spotted in the lake have died because they couldn’t find their way out and back to a natural breeding ground. 

Salmon becoming lost or trapped in an area before they can find a spawning ground is common in California for a couple of reasons, said Sullivan. Salmon routes are often blocked by dams, which many can’t get past. 

“That’s why we typically don’t see as many salmon in streams as we did before we started putting up all these barriers,” Sullivan said. 

Sometimes this can be helped by fish ladders, constructs that allow fish to easily pass over dams to the other side. But “it’s expensive to build a fish ladder,” said Sullivan. “It’s millions of dollars. It’s not impossible to do, we just need to convince the right people that they need to provide access for these fish to get to their original spawning grounds.” 

A chinook salmon attempting to cross a concrete barricade in Alameda Creek so it can reach its spawning grounds. Credit: Dan Sarka

Drought conditions are also to blame, said Neillands. Since 2014, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has been trucking salmon to the Bay Delta to “improve their survival and for harvesting and commercial reasons,” Neillands said. However, the trucking process doesn’t allow the salmon to remember the route back to their native streams. 

“So when they return to the bay, a certain number of them can’t figure out where to go,” Neillands said. “Many do, but it increases the number of stray fish.” 

Warming temperatures have also caused salmon populations to drop at an alarming rate, even leading some commercial salmon fishers in the Bay Area to quit the business. Chinook salmon in California are not designated as endangered, but they are threatened and have protections under the Endangered Species Act that make fishing them for consumption an illegal practice. “They’re a huge commercial resource,” Sullivan said, “so it’s to protect the species and make sure they’re sustainable.” 

The success of this season’s salmon run will be reliant on a continuous amount of rainfall in the coming weeks, but Sullivan is hopeful that more of the salmon will be able to make it to the streams they were born in and usher in a new generation. 

“Kids are getting excited about it and I’ve had schools contact me that want to learn more [about the salmon],” Sullivan said about recent sightings in East Bay waterways. “The amount of buzz that these salmon have generated in the community is even more reason to try and get them back to their streams.”

Meanwhile at Lake Merritt, Noonan wants to make it clear to visitors that it’s illegal to fish for Chinook salmon without a state fishing license and salmon card, and only someone with a state scientific collector’s permit can collect them after they die. 

“Let’s just enjoy their visit,” Noonan said. 

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.