UC Davis reports die-off of 21,000 fish including winter chinooks and sturgeon at CABA facility

By Dan Bacher | 

As Klamath River communities continue to recover from a massive fish kill caused by a debris slide spurred by heavy rains and the McKinney Fire in Northern California, UC Davis on August 11 issued a statement that they were “devastated to report” that a catastrophic failure has resulted in the loss of about 21,000 fish at the UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture, or CABA.

UC Davis to date hasn’t reported to date the estimated number of fish of each species that were killed, only that winter-run Chinook salmon and white and green sturgeon were among the fish that perished.

News of the fish kill was released the same day that Governor Newsom and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot unveiled the California Natural Resources Agency’s plan to deal with aridification in California here: https://resources.ca.gov/-/media/CNRA-Website/Files/Initiatives/Water-Resilience/CA-Water-Supply-Strategy.pdf

The loss appears to be due to chlorine exposure, to which fish are especially sensitive. UC Davis states:

“We are in the process of:

  • Investigating where our process failed
  • Notifying regulatory and funding agencies, and collaborators
  • Caring for the surviving fish
  • Reviewing processes in other similar facilities
  • Initiating an independent external review
  • Developing mitigation plans for research programs that were directly affected
  • Supporting our students, staff and faculty

“An example of research that was being conducted at CABA involved the investigation of bioenergetics and environmental stressors on fish species, which included green and white sturgeon, as well as endangered Chinook salmon.

“There are many other facilities where UC Davis conducts aquatic research that were not impacted by this situation. While many of these facilities do not have similar potential for chlorine exposure, there are some that do, and we are going to evaluate risk at those facilities. 

“We know that many researchers, regulatory agencies, Native American tribes and other partners trust us to care for their aquatic species.  We will work hard to earn that trust by conducting a thorough review of our facilities, holding ourselves accountable for what happened, and taking steps to prevent it from happening ever again.

“We share the grief of the faculty, staff and students who worked to care for, study and conserve these animals. The people who conduct and support the research at this facility are conservationists, ecologists and veterinarians whose life work is devoted to understanding and supporting these species.  We recognize that this loss is particularly devastating to our community. We commit to understanding what happened and making changes to the facility so that we can ensure that this does not happen again.”  

In the Delta Flows blog on August 12, Tim Stroshane, Restore the Delta (RTD) policy export, commented on the U.C. Davis fish kill in the context of the release of Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to deal with California’s acidification due to climate change. 

“We got the news early Thursday when the Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Gavin Newsom had released a plan to deal with California’s aridification. Might be a new approach!

“Newsom, however, did not anticipate the same day the institutional death of 21,000 captive fish under study at the University of California, Davis. Ironically, it appears scientists there were studying these fishes’ response to “environmental stressors.” Chlorine introduced into their ‘environment’ was apparently the cause of their death en mass. ‘An example of research that was being conducted at CABA involved the investigation of bioenergetics and environmental stressors on fish species, which included green and white sturgeon, as well as endangered Chinook salmon’ reads the university’s media statement.

“One of my Twitter followers reports that Delta smelt were not affected, since they were housed in a facility separate from where the Davis fish kill occurred. Still, the university has not directly acknowledged to the public which fish species were killed. We are left to assume, until further notice, that sturgeon and Chinook salmon were the victims. Green sturgeon and winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon are listed species. It is a serious breach of trust that the public and government agencies and water managers place in scientists—we trust them to protect the lives of the species they study. As RTD tweeted Thursday in response to this story, these fishes’ deaths reinforce the truth that “Science cannot take the place of natural processes.”

“In light of the news out of Davis, however, we quickly realized Newsom's hype is merely for a campaign document, and that Newsom’s appearance with Antioch’s brackish-water desalination plant as backdrop was a chance for him to shift the narrative about water and drought in California—just with 21,000 fish corpses at his metaphorical feet. These fish were in the UC Davis tanks in the first place because of how devastating to their Central Valley river and estuary habitats state and federal water storage, diversions, operations, and management has been since at least the 1970s.

“To Newsom’s credit, ‘California’s Water Supply Strategy: Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future,’ (which I’ll refer to as ‘Hotter, Drier’) makes clear that ‘Our climate has changed….This is our new climate reality, and we must adap’—in large print so no one will miss it. On the next page, the governor boldly announces, ‘We know now that hotter and drier weather could diminish our existing water supply by up to 10% by 2040. So we are taking action.’ The good thing here is that he confronts climate deniers. Newsom really wants to be seen as bold on water, though he is not.”

Read Stroshane’s full blog here: https://bit.ly/3dvfTha 

The Governor’s video press conference is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBnf_MMSuRc 

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