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Drought And Parasite Threaten Klamath River Chinook

Jes Burns

Drought is creating problems in river systems all around the Northwest. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Scientists there say there’s not enough cool water flowing, and a fish kill of young Chinook [shin-’nook] salmon is likely.

Releasing more water from upstream reservoirs could help the fish stay healthy.

On a shallow side channel of the Klamath River, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife technicians scoop small fish and vegetation out of a floating trap. The fish are carefully placed in five gallon buckets and the plants casually tossed back into the river.

Steve Gough: “Well these are Chinook salmon, we have a mix. There’s suckers, which are native.”

Fish biologist Steve Gough has been overseeing fish sampling on the Klamath.

Steve Gough: “We’ve got a number of dead fish. Some of them are from disease. Some of them look like they’ve been ravaged by lamprey.”

It’s the disease he’s worried about. More than half of the three inch long Chinook are either dead or showing signs of a serious parasitic infection called “C” shasta. Gough says the fish likely picked up the parasite at a hot spot just a little ways upstream.

Steve Gough: “They were most likely infected and on their last fin floating in.”

C. shasta is naturally present in major river systems throughout the Northwest. But this year, the Klamath River has been like a tropical resort for the parasite – warm and lazy with a steady buffet of Chinook.

Biologists warn that a fish kill is likely to occur. June is critical for the young fish, says Alex Corum, a biologist with the Karuk tribe.

Alex Corum: “What we really want is for them to get out of the river before it gets too warm, but some fish just aren’t growing quickly enough for that to work out.”

And the fish keep coming. In the past few weeks, the Iron Gate Hatchery released more than five million juvenile Chinook, the backbone of the Klamath salmon fishery. Biologists believe few will escape infection. Many will die.

More water would help the situation. But aside from rain, the only place that water could come from is here.

Credit Jes Burns / Earthfix
Bureau of Reclamation Klamath District Manager Therese O'Rourke Bradford at the Link River Dam, which controls water flow out of Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon.

Therese O’Rourke Bradford: “We’re standing at the Link River Dam…”

Bureau of Reclamation Manager Therese O’Rourke Bradford walks along the low dam that controls water flow out of Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon. A nutria scurries out of the way.

Therese O’Rourke Bradford: “Water is extremely restricted. It’s restricted for the fish, whether that be the suckers or the salmon. It’s extremely restricted for the irrigators.”

The dam is there to serve Klamath Project irrigators. Because there’s no snowpack, the farmers are only slated to get about half the water they need.

The Bureau is required to release a minimum average flow to keep fish alive. But when biologists requested additional water to help with the parasite, Reclamation said “no,” they didn’t have enough.

O’Rourke Bradford says they will consider future requests as they come.

Therese O’Rourke Bradford: “It’s not something that we make a decision and put it on the shelf. We are literally meeting every single day, talking about fish, talking about irrigation, talking about the needs. Every single day.”

Credit Jes Burns / Earthfix
Fish biologists and technicians gather on the Salmon River in California for a Fish Kill Response training.

In case those daily decisions don’t favor salmon, agencies downstream are planning for the worst.

Barry Mccovey: “In the event of a fish kill on the Lower Klamath River, the Yurok Tribe would be the lead. We’d set up a command post in Weitchpec or Klamath…”

On the breezy bank of the Salmon River, a Klamath tributary, field technicians are being trained on how to respond to mass die-off.

Weighing on everyone’s mind is the death of an estimated 70,000 adult Chinook in 2002. California Fish and Wildlife Biologist Sara Borok says everyone was blindsided by that fish kill, but this year, they’re prepared.

Sara Borok” “Now, we can see it building from now. We have an idea, if we don’t get water this year, we could be in a world of hurt again.”

Of course, once a kill happens, no preparation in the world can bring those fish back.

Copyright 2015 Earthfix