Annual Survey Paints Grim Picture for Iconic Species
SOMES BAR, CALIFORNIA—The population of Chinook salmon that swims up the Klamath River in the spring once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Last Friday, less than three hundred were counted during the Salmon River Cooperative Spring Chinook and Summer Steelhead Survey-the fourth lowest return in twenty years. “This result is particularly disappointing when you consider that this year’s returns are the offspring of 2010 – 2013, which were the largest returns in twenty years,” said Nat Pennington, Spring Chinook Specialist with the Salmon River Restoration Council and Board member of Klamath Riverkeeper.
Wild spring Chinook returns were similarly dismal on the Trinity River, the largest tributary to the Klamath, “It’s looking like this will be the lowest number of spring Chinook counted since 1989 on the South Fork Trinity”said Josh Smith of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hyampom, CA. According to Salmon River Restoration Council Executive Director Josh Saxon, “Spring Chinook are a keystone species for local Tribes, they are the first to migrate when river flows are still high and traditionally their appearance signaled the beginning of world renewal ceremony and fish harvest. These low numbers should signal a screaming red siren to managing agencies that this system needs restoration now.”
This year Klamath River spring Chinook had to run a gauntlet of potential killers in the lower river to get to their spawning grounds and it is believed that many won’t make it through the summer to spawn. Last year 60 spring Chinook were found dead before they were able to spawn in the Salmon River and this year, conditions are worse.
“Record low flows coupled with record high river temperatures and disease prevalence were likely the biggest hurdle for fish this year,” said Sammy Gensaw, a Yurok salmon fisherman, “the run seemed delayed, like they could not come into the estuary because it was so incredibly warm, I have never seen it this bad.”
Last week, the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program found that the fish diseaseIchthyophthirius multifiliis, (Ich) is infecting fish in the river. Ich played a key role in the infamous 2002 fish kill, which left an estimated 60,000 salmon to rot along the banks of the Lower Klamath. Spring Chinook don’t get to choose when they migrate, once their biological clock goes off, they must enter the river. High temperatures and low flows are preventing them from reaching their spawning grounds, and Ich infections are likely to be transferred from the spring to the fall Chinook, raising concerns about another fish kill.
The majority of spring Chinook habitat was lost early in the 20th century when the Klamath Dams were constructed. Prior to the dams, they were the Klamath’s most prolific run of fish. The dams not only block fish passage, they degrade the water that passes through them to the extent that the spring run hatchery at the lowest dam, a required mitigation measure to compensate for dam construction, failed in the 1970’s because of poor water quality.
Pennington and others point to removal of the Klamath Dams as the best means to reverse the trend of decreasing fish populations. “The Klamath River crisis of the past several decades is coming to a head with California’s terrible drought,” said Congressman Jared Huffman, CA-2). “Agreements to remove the dams on the Klamath River and strike a balance for fish, wildlife and agriculture are on the books and written into legislation that is stalled in Congress. It’s critical for Washington to move beyond gridlock and address this issue for the sake of Klamath River salmon and the communities and jobs that depend on them.” According to Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe, “These Agreements are supported by Klamath River Tribes, Klamath irrigators, most conservation groups, and the dam’s owner Pacificorp but they have been stalled in Congress by Northern California Rep. Doug LaMalfa.”
Photos courtesy of Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative