The U.S. Fish and Wildlife techs are recording their catch from shallow side channel of the middle Klamath River. They’re observing variety, inspecting the fish for signs of trouble, and packing up hatchery for disease testing at a lab.
“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,” says USFWS fish biologist Steve Gough, who has been overseeing fish sampling on the Klamath.
It’s the disease biologists are worried about. More than half of the 3-inch long chinook in the trap are either dead or showing signs of a serious parasitic infection called of Ceratanova, or “C” shasta. Gough says the fish likely picked up the parasite at a hot spot just a little ways upstream from the trap.
“They were most likely infected and on there last fin floating in,” he says.
Warm river is this parasite’s paradise
C. shasta is naturally present in major river systems throughout the Northwest, from the Cowlitz to the Columbia, Willamette and Deschutes, and all the way down into central California.
But this year, the Klamath River has been like a tropical resort for the parasite. It’s warm and lazy with a steady buffet of the two hosts it needs to complete its life cycle: the tiny, nearly invisible polychaete worm and the chinook salmon.
Klamath River water tests have shown parasite levels there more than 10 times greater than the level known to cause fish death. And nearly 100 percent of chinook caught in this fish trap in early May were infected.
Biologists warn that a fish kill is likely to occur. June is a critical time for the young fish.
“What we really want is for them to get out of the river before it gets too warm, but some fish aren’t growing quickly enough for that to work out,” says Alex Corum, a biologists with the Karuk tribe.
And the fish keep coming. Over the past few weeks, the Iron Gate Hatchery in Northern California released more than five million juvenile chinook, the backbone of the Klamath salmon fishery.
Biologists believe few will escape infection. Infection does not always cause death, but the warm, low river flow means fish are weaker and they’ll remain in the kill zones longer. Many young chinook will die.
Not enough to go around
“Any increase in flow in a drought year is going to be beneficial to the situation,” USFWS’s Gough says.
But aside from rain, the only place that water could come from far upstream – the Link River Dam.
“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,” O’Rourke Bradford says.
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.
A 2013 joint biological opinion requires Reclamation to release a minimum average flow to keep the fish alive. But when scientists with the Klamath Fish Health Assessment Team – or KFHAT- requested an additional pulse flow to help disperse the parasite and get the fish downstream, Reclamation said “no,” they didn’t have enough.
“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,” O’Rourke Bradford says.
She adds that the Bureau of Reclamation will consider future requests for additional water releases as they come.
Preparing for the inevitable?
In the event Reclamation’s daily decisions don’t lead to the release of enough water for salmon, agencies downstream are planning for the worst.
On the breezy bank of the Salmon River, a tributary of the Klamath, field technicians from a multitude of state, federal, non-profit and tribal agencies are being trained on how to respond to mass die-off of fish.
Weighing on everyone’s mind is the death of tens of thousands of adult chinook in 2002. Craig Tucker is the Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk tribe.
“September is when the Yurok and Karuk people are doing World Renewal ceremonies, and it’s when the active fishery is going on. And to see 70,000 adult salmon to go belly up in the river was a traumatic experience, to say the least, for people,” he says.
Tucker says one way to prevent this from happening again is to implement the Klamath Restoration agreements, which would lead to the removal of several dams on the river.
But for now fish scientists are struggling deal with the present situation – making sure no one is blindsided by a mass fish kill. Aside from requesting more water releases from Upper Klamath Lake, technicians on the river can do little to prevent a kill.
But at least this time around, California Fish and Wildlife Biologist Sara Borok says they’re much better prepared to respond.
“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.”