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Klamath Salmon near extintion: Record Low Salmon River Salmon Runs – Three Times in a Row
Forks of Salmon, CA - Scientists and Conservationists were shocked last week to find out that the Salmon River fall Chinook run had dipped even lower than the previous year’s record low. Only an estimated 320 fall Chinook returned to the Salmon River according to the California Dept. of Fish and Game (CDFG). CDFG has counts for spawning fall Chinook that go back 27 years to 1978. A large tributary to the Klamath, the Salmon River had an all time low in 2004 with a run of 626 fall Chinook. Before that the record low had stood at 780 in 1999, as shown in the chart below.
Chart above shows run estimates according to California Department of Fish & Game. Low numbers could result in genetic bottlenecking and/or extinction. Click on chart for a larger format suitable for printing.
“This is especially disheartening considering that last was the previous lowest spring Chinook run on record. That makes this the third record low run in a row,” said Nat Pennington, Fisheries Program Coordinator for Salmon River Restoration Council.
Last fall’s run was low in most of the Klamath’s tributaries. For example, the Scott River had its second lowest run on record, following 2004’s record low run. Regulators and fishing communities alike worry that the last wild runs left in the Klamath basin are slowly going extinct.
The fisheries experts agree that over fishing is not part of the problem. Ocean and in-river salmon harvest quotas were the lowest in years. The Yurok Tribe even cancelled their commercial season to allow for more spawning in tributaries like the Scott and Salmon. Many point to the massive adult and juvenile fish kills in the Klamath in 2001 and 2002 when most of the adult salmon that returned to the river last year were born. Few will forget the Fish Kill of 2002, when low flows and high water temperatures left over 68,000 adult salmon dead before spawning.
According Karuk Tribe Biologist Toz Soto, “Over the past few years we have witness annual juvenile and adult fish kills because the Klamath has been too warm and the water quality too poor. These conditions are created by PacifiCorp’s dams in combination with the low releases from the Bureau of Reclamations’ Klamath Project. The salmon can’t take many more years of this.”
The Karuk Tribe’s ancestral homeland is in the middle of the Klamath Basin, below the dams. The Karuk is the second largest Tribe in California with over 3,400 members. Since time immemorial the Tribe has lived from the bounty of the river, but not any more. Last year Tribal fishermen caught a mere 200 fall Chinook. Recent reports indicate that loss of the fishery and other traditional foods are directly linked to the high rates of heart disease and diabetes among Tribal members.
“This is really not only about the fish, it’s about human health. These dams are literally taking food from the mouths of our children and affecting our overall health.,” according to Ron Reed, Cultural Biologist for the Karuk Tribe.
Regulators are still crunching numbers to see if the Klamath will meet the 35,000 fish natural spawning minimum set by the Magnuson Act. This population estimate is produced from the Klamath Basin Cooperative Chinook Spawning Surveys, involving the U.S. Forest Service, CDFG, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Schools and the Salmon River Restoration Council. The size of the Klamath fall Chinook run effects future salmon fishing regulations and commercial quotas. Those who noticed the higher prices last year for wild salmon at docks from San Francisco to Portland can attribute some of that price hike to increased fishing regulations protecting the wild Klamath run, once the third largest on the west coast.
Tribes, fishermen, and conservationists are hoping that PacifiCorp’s dams, which block over 350 miles of historic spawning habitat, will be removed as part of the dam relicensing agreement which could be decided on later this year.
Others hope that upper basin agricultural interests and down river fisheries interests can work out some win-win solutions to put more water in the river’s future and provide certainty for farmers. “One big problem is money - most of the government grant sources for grassroots cooperative restoration and continued scientific research are drying up. It has been 20 years since president Reagan signed the Klamath Fisheries Restoration Act, which expires this year. Now is the time for Congress to revisit it’s commitment to the Klamath.” said Pennington. Pennington also encourages people in the northwest to keep abreast of current threats to salmon restoration or swallow the cost of high priced salmon steaks.
Editor’s note: The author / photographer, and individuals quoted in this article authorize the contents of this press release including pictures and charts to be copied in part or entirety and used freely by individuals in the press.