Karuk Tribe collects healthy juvenile Chinook salmon on mainstream Klamath River

Photo of juvenile salmon fry courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). |

By Dan Bacher | 

Happy Camp, California – After the alarming report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that 830,000 fall-run Chinook salmon fry died after being released in Fall Creek on the Klamath River last week due to gas bubble disease, some more positive news about salmon came in today.

The Karuk Tribe Fisheries Department reported that young Chinook salmon collected in the mainstem Klamath near the Scott River are “healthy and strong.”

“We are pleased to say that despite the sediment loads associated with draining the reservoirs, we are finding healthy wild juvenile Chinook making their way downstream to the ocean,” said Toz Soto, Fisheries Program Manager for the Tribe, in a statement.

Since Iron Gate, Copco, and JC Boyle dams were breached by the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) in January as part of the dam removal project, the river has carried large sediment loads that impair water quality, according to Soto.

“We knew there would be some short-term pain in order to see the long-term gain from dam removal,” noted Soto.

Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Consultant, Karuk Tribe, noted that the juvenile salmon fry the biologists observed are now leaving the tributaries and going downriver on their journey to the ocean.

“The scientists used seine nets to trap the fish and observed dozens of healthy juvenile salmon,” said Tucker. “They didn’t find any dead fish. Our conclusion is that the fish are healthy and they adjusted to the sediment changes in the river.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reported last week that 830,000 fall-run Chinook salmon fry released from the new Fall Creek Fish Hatchery perished while passing through the Iron Gate dam diversion tunnel. 

“The fish showed morphological signs of gas bubble disease,” the Tribe stated. “Gas bubble disease results from environmental or physical trauma often associated with severe pressure change. The findings suggest the hatchery fish could not withstand the trip through the Iron Gate Dam bypass tunnel.”

The Tribe said the new sampling results are “encouraging” and suggest that last week’s fish kill was limited to the hatchery release and wild stocks downstream are unaffected.

CDFW said it plans to meet hatchery release goals

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) said it still plans to meet its hatchery release goals because it raised more fish than required in case of unexpected events.

“Restoration on this scale presents some uncertainties,” argued Soto. “Luckily, we didn’t put all our salmon eggs in one basket and there are millions more fish in the hatchery to release later this year. This time we know to truck them around Iron Gate Dam.”

CDFW’s Fall Creek Fish Hatchery continues to hold approximately 3.27 million healthy, fall-run Chinook salmon, the CDFW reported. Additional releases are planned later in the month.

“The annual fall-run Chinook salmon production goal for the hatchery is to raise and release 3.25 million fish – 1.25 million released as fry, 1.75 million as smolts, and 250,000 as yearlings. The additional stock of fall-run Chinook salmon remaining in the hatchery exceeds the annual production goal and will help offset losses experienced with the initial release of fry,” the CDFW stated.  

Karuk Chair Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery responded to the news of last week’s die off of 830,000 salmon fry — and the more positive news of the Klamath River fall-run Chinook fry collected in the river this week.

“The bad news is that Iron Gate is still killing salmon. The good news is that it won’t be for long. We are excited to watch our river recover and our salmon come home,” concluded Attebery.

One dam, Copco 2, has already been removed, according to the Tribe. Three other dams, Iron Gate, Copco 1, and JC Boyle, have been breached and the reservoirs behind them drained. The Tribe said they will be removed over the course of the next several months. 

“The salmon fry experienced a large mortality based on monitoring data downstream,” CDFW added. “Indications are the cause of mortality is gas bubble disease that likely occurred as the fry migrated through the Iron Gate Dam tunnel, old infrastructure that is targeted for removal along with the Iron Gate Dam itself later this year.”

The CDFW said “there is no indication” the mortality is associated with other Klamath River water quality conditions such as turbidity and dissolved oxygen, which were reading at suitable levels on Feb. 26 and the days prior to release.

“The visual appearance of the dead fry detected by monitoring equipment points to gas bubble disease. Monitoring equipment documented other healthy yearling coho and Chinook salmon that came from downstream of the dam,” CDFW observed.

After this big fish kill, CDFW said it will plan all future salmon releases below Iron Gate Dam until this infrastructure is removed.

“Poor habitat conditions caused by the dams and other circumstances such as this are reasons why CDFW conducts releases of hatchery fish at various life stages,” the Department concluded.

Salmon fishing likely to be closed or severely limited this year

This fish kill came at a critical time for salmon and other fish populations in California. Due to the collapse of fall-run Chinook salmon on the Klamath/Trinity and Sacramento River systems in 2022, all commercial and recreational salmon fishing on the ocean was closed in California and most of Oregon last year.

All recreational fishing was closed on all California rivers last year  —  and salmon harvest by the Yurok Tribe on the Klamath River and the Hoopa Valley Tribe on the Trinity River was restricted to a quota of just 2,091 fish.

The salmon seasons are also likely to be closed or severely restricted this year also, based on the dangerously low ocean abundance forecast and spawning escapement of Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon that was released by state and federal fishery scientists at the CDFW’s annual salmon information meeting via webinar on March 1.

The forecasted adult Sacramento Valley fall-run Chinook salmon population number is only 213,622, based on a jack escapement of only 11,933, according to Dr. Michael O’Farrell of NOAA Fisheries.

This is the second lowest abundance forecast since the salmon fishing closure of 2008 to 2009. Considering that the goal for spawning escapement is 180,000 this year, this would only leave 33,622 fish for a fishing season.  

The Klamath River fall Chinook abundance forecast is 138,741 for age 3 fish, 39,531 for age 4 fish and 2,409 for age 5 fish. The fishery is now in “overfished” status” and the 2023 regulations applied to the 2024 abundance forecast would result in a natural area spawner prediction of 42,932, according to O’Farrell.

“It’s premature to say what the fishing opportunities will be this year,” said Kandice Morgenstern, CDFW environmental scientist, at Friday’s meeting. “A fisheries closure is a possibility, but it’s too early to preclude some fishing this season. It’s too early to say yes or no on a season.”

On the other hand, Scott Artis, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA), noted that the 2024 forecast shows “dangerously low numbers of adult Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon.”

“This forecast will be used to determine whether or not salmon families in California and Oregon will be able to go to work, pay their mortgages and feed their families in 2024. Tens of thousands are still suffering from last year’s closed salmon fishing season,” said Artis.

“The buck stops with Governor Newsom and his environmentally destructive and salmon fishery-decimating water policies,” stated Artis. “And as bad as this situation is, Governor Newsom is fighting to make life even harder for fishing families by building the massive Delta tunnel, Sites Reservoir and promoting the salmon killing and science-free water user ‘voluntary agreement’ proposal.”

California representatives are working together to develop a range of recommended ocean fishing season alternatives at the March 6-11 Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) meeting in Fresno, Calif. Final season recommendations will be adopted at the PFMC’s April 6-11 meeting in Seattle, Wash.

For more information related to the salmon preseason process, including contact information, timeline and other opportunities for public engagement, please visit the CDFW’s Ocean Salmon Calendar of Events page. 

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