Thousands of salmon have vanished from the Mokelumne River.
What's worse: Experts aren't sure what is wrong - and there's a growing fear that the fish are teetering on the edge of a catastrophic collapse.
Only 361 salmon returned to the Mokelumne River this year. That's compared to 2005's return of 16,128.
It's the second smallest run since 1989, when biologists started making accurate counts in the river.
"It has taken this precipitous fall that is pretty much one of the largest in the river and the hatchery," said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game.
Statewide, the salmon collapse forced regulators to cancel the commercial fishing season for the first time ever.
They prohibited most recreational fishing. The disappearance of California's salmon has cost the economy millions and has sent debilitating ripples through the environment.
The salmon provide jobs, protein for local non-profits, nutrients for vineyards and sport for local fisherman.
Though fish have dwindled, theories on their demise abound.
No one really knows, however, why the salmon, at least in substantial numbers, have gone.
Or whether they will ever return.
A hatchery stands quiet
One only has to visit the Mokelumne River Hatchery at the base of Camanche Dam to see the stark evidence of the salmon's absence.
Normally, the hatchery would be teeming with life. Thousands of small salmon would be struggling to free themselves from eggs or swimming in large troughs.
Those long, green troughs - dozens of which fill the hatchery - are mostly empty now. Only the soft sound of running water fills the echoing hatchery.
Each year, the hatchery tries to raise 6 million salmon smolt from 8 to 9 million eggs. This year, the hatchery has fewer than 300,000 eggs.
"You can see it's a pretty drastic drop in production," said Bill Smith, a manager at the hatchery.
The hatchery staff collect eggs from returning female salmon. After pulling the fish from the river, hatchery staff kill the salmon and harvest the eggs. The eggs are then fertilized with salmon sperm (or "milt") and incubate at the hatchery.
With fewer fish, the hatchery has fewer eggs to raise new salmon.
Smith said the hatchery needs a run of about 5,500 salmon to collect enough eggs to make the hatchery self-sufficient, or able to produce another generation of fish with just the eggs collected on the Mokelumne.
Once the eggs are incubated, they are either placed in a tray, which has water flowing over it, or into a large, plastic cylinder that has water flowing up through it.
Why did they go?
When the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, or EBMUD, impounded the Mokelumne River to create Camanche and Pardee reservoirs in the early '60s, it destroyed the natural spawning grounds. EBMUD then had to build the hatchery, funded largely through EBMUD and the state. EBMUD pays $750,000 a year, and the state chips in $800,000 raised through salmon tags and commercial fishing. The hatchery was remodeled in 2002 and is open to the public seven days a week.
Jose Setka is the supervising fisheries biologist at EBMUD's Mokelumne office located in Lodi. He points to changes in ocean conditions, which reduced the amount of food available to the salmon. Having worked on the Mokelumne River since 1991, Setka has seen the number of salmon swing through various cycles.
Setka is encouraged by the fact that EBMUD staff have spotted two-year-old salmon, known as "grilses," this year.
"That's kind of an indicator things will improve," he said.
Salmon usually don't return upriver until they are three years old. If juvenile salmon appear in the river, it could mean that there's a healthier salmon population still at sea.
Because of the cyclical nature of salmon, it's not unusual for hatcheries to need extra eggs in down years. But this year, the state didn't have any eggs available for transfer from other hatcheries, and that has Setka worried.
"We have significant concerns if that policy continues," he said. "In our opinion, in order to sustain our run, we need those eggs."
Morse, the spokesman with the Department of Fish and Game, said there just weren't any eggs to transfer.
Decline of a festival tooInspired by a record run of salmon in 1998, the city of Lodi organized a one-day salmon festival in the fall.
The festival, not unlike the ongoing Sandhill Crane Festival, was intended to celebrate the return of one of the area's migratory animals. Events included tours and lectures as well as carnival rides, crafts and a fishing derby. Some of the earlier festivals even featured a Native American powwow because of the importance of salmon in Native American culture.
By 2004 however, a crimp in the city's finances put an end to the salmon festival. Although organizers said there would just be a one-year "abeyance," the festival never returned.
Panel discussion on salmonThe International Sportsmen's Exposition at Cal Expo in Sacramento today features a panel of experts discussing the uncertain future of the state's salmon and steelhead.
The public presentation will take place at 1 p.m. today in the California Sportsmen Theater.
Included in the discussion are: Dr. Joshua A. Israel, a member of the University of California at Davis' State of the Salmon Team; Barry Nelson, water policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, chair of the Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee; Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations; Michael Jackson, attorney for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance; and Dick Pool, administrator of Water4Fish Program.
Panelists are expected to discuss the dire situation of the region's salmon runs and what can be done to preserve them.
He said the decline in salmon has been so steep and so pervasive that there just isn't a clear strategy on how to deal with it.
"You're in a year that's uncharted. That's what the real difficulty is," he said.
Usually, the Mokelumne hatchery can receive an egg transfer from the Nimbus Hatchery on the American River, but Nimbus saw far fewer fish, too. The only hatchery that didn't see a huge drop in the number of fish is the Coleman National Hatchery on the Sacramento River near Redding.
But Morse said the state didn't want to request those eggs because the hatchery is run by the federal government, and because the fish are of a different genetic strain.
A fisherman's perspective
Lodi resident Bill Ferrero has been fishing the Mokelumne River for 40 years. The part-time fishing guide is currently pursuing steelhead.
He has noticed the decline in salmon.
"In 2006, it wasn't unusual to see a pack of coyotes dragging a salmon carcass out of the river," he said.
Ferrero said that of the many factors that have contributed to the drop in salmon, the most significant is lower flows in the Mokelumne. More water makes for a healthier environment and more fish, Ferrero said.
"I'm finding fish for clients, but it's a lot tougher with that low flow," he said.
EBMUD's Setka, however, disagrees. He said the salmon problem is not one that can be solved by simply releasing more water.
He said that in 2004 the river was flowing at about the same rate it is now, and the Mokelumne had more than 11,000 fish return.
"There's more to it than just putting more water down the river and having fish magically come up the river," he said.
It's not just sportsmen who go wanting when the salmon don't return. Many animals eagerly await the fall run because the fish provide a rich source of food.
Not every salmon returns to the hatchery to spawn; some mate in the river. After spawning, the salmon die and their carcasses provide food for animals and even help the soil. A 2006 study by UC Davis found that the rich soil that nurtures Lodi's vineyards is imbued with nutrients from dead salmon.
The salmon that do reach the hatchery don't go to waste, either. After the fish are processed at the hatchery, the carcasses are donated to local charities or food banks.
"We didn't have any fish to donate to anyone this year," said hatchery manager Smith.
Smith has his own thoughts on why the salmon are down, but he keeps them to himself, saying that he issue is too political for him to get involved. What he does say is that it has been hard to see so few fish return to the hatchery.
"For us, it's extremely depressing. You put a lot of time and effort into raising the fish."