Catastrophic Juvenile Fish Kill Unfolds on the Klamath River

Today (May 13), the Yurok Tribe reported that a widespread and catastrophic juvenile fish kill is taking place on the Klamath River, a day after the US Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would not release water to prevent a juvenile salmon kill on the river, as requested by the Tribe, and would not open the Klamath Project’s “A Canal” that supplies irrigation water to Klamath Basin growers.

“While historic drought is the primary cause of the lack of water, previous BOR water allocation decisions led to the widespread fish kill, which could have been prevented with a flow increase,” according to the Yurok Tribe, the largest Tribe in California with more than 6,300 members, in a news release.

“Right now, the Klamath River is full of dead and dying fish on the Yurok Reservation,” said Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman. “This disease will kill most of the baby salmon in the Klamath, which will impact fish runs for many years to come. For salmon people, a juvenile fish kill is an absolute worst-case scenario.”

On Monday, I reported on the increasing deaths of juvenile salmon on the main stem of the Klamath River in my article about Governor Gavin Newsom’s expanded drought emergency declaration. The fish kill has only become worse since then:…

The Yurok Fisheries Department every year monitors the Klamath River for the deadly pathogen, Ceratonova shasta (C. Shasta), according to the Tribe. The monitoring crew uses a rotary screw trap to collect live fish for the annual disease assessment.

“During the last two weeks, more than 70 percent of the juvenile Chinook salmon in the trap were dead, which is extremely abnormal. Available scientific information leads to the conclusion that these fish died from C. shasta. Large numbers of dead fish were also encountered at upriver monitoring sites,” the Tribe stated.

On May 4, 2021, the most recent date for which data is available, 97 percent of the juvenile salmon captured between the Shasta River and Scott River stretch of the Klamath were infected with C. Shasta and will be dead within days, according to the Tribe.

“We are watching a massive fish kill unfold in real-time,” said Yurok Fisheries Department Director Barry McCovey Jr, a Yurok citizen who has studied fish disease on the Klamath for more than two decades. “The juvenile fish kill will limit salmon production for many years to come. It will also negatively impact many other native species, ranging from orcas to osprey, because salmon play such an essential role in the overall ecosystem.”

The Tribe stated, “Since time immemorial, the Yurok lifeway has revolved around the Klamath River salmon runs. This invaluable species is integral to the Tribe’s traditions and ceremonies. Prior to the fisheries collapse, salmon were an important source of sustenance for thousands of Yurok citizens. During the last five years, the Klamath fish runs have been some of the lowest on record and the Yurok Tribe has not been able to harvest enough fish to meet its subsistence or ceremonial needs, let alone implement a commercial catch.”

The Tribe said this year’s adult salmon forecast is also very low and the Yurok Tribe cancelled its commercial fishery for a fifth time to protect struggling fish stocks. The median income is $11,000 on the Yurok Reservation and many tribal families rely on the fishery to pay basic bills.

The Klamath River fall Chinook ocean abundance forecast of 181,500 adult salmon is slightly higher than the 2020 forecast, but still significantly lower than the long-term average, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reported in February.

“Communities throughout the Klamath Basin are facing serious hardships as a result of the drought,” the Tribe pointed out. “Farm communities and our upstream neighbors the Klamath Tribes are also feeling the pinch this year.”

“In addition to the hardship brought by low flows on the mainstem Klamath, the fish in the Shasta and Scott Rivers are also facing dire conditions and loss of year class. In the Scott River, unless groundwater extraction is moderated, it is a virtual certainty that Chinook and Coho salmon will not be able to reach their spawning grounds due to insufficient flows for migration,” the Tribe said.

“What Klamath Basin communities are facing right now is the definition of a disaster. It is also the new normal,” concluded Vice Chair Frankie Myers. “Substantial water shortages are a long-predicted symptom of climate change. There is an urgent need for an equitable federal disaster relief bill that addresses the immediate needs of our communities and establishes a foundation from which to build a more resilient ecology and economy in the Klamath Basin. We owe it to future generations to never let another juvenile fish kill like this happen again. We need to act now before it is too late for the Klamath salmon.”

On May 12, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would not release a Klamath River flushing flow, as requested by the Yurok Tribe, nor open the Klamath Project’s “A Canal” that supplies irrigation water to Klamath Basin growers, stating that increasing extreme drought conditions in combination with operations for threatened and endangered species “will further reduce Klamath Project water supplies to historically low volumes in 2021.”

“Given the insufficiency of the expected water supply, the Bureau of Reclamation announced today that Klamath Project’s ‘A’ Canal will remain closed for the 2021 irrigation season,” Reclamation announced. “In coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, Reclamation also announced that a Klamath River surface flushing flow for salmon will not be implemented this year.”

“This year’s drought conditions are bringing unprecedented hardship to the communities of the Klamath Basin,” stated Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “We have closely monitored the water conditions in the area and the unfortunate deterioration of the forecasted hydrology, This has resulted in the historic consequence of not being able to operate a majority of the Klamath Project this year. Reclamation is dedicated to working with our water users, tribes, and partners to get through this difficult year and developing long-term solutions for the basin.”

The Klamath Water Users Association expressed “grave disappointment” with the announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation that no water is to be diverted at A Canal for irrigation in 2021.

“The first water delivery from the A Canal was in 1907,” said Paul Simmons, Executive Director and Counsel for KWUA in a brief statement. “This is the first year ever it will deliver zero water.”

In Monday’s article on Newsom’s expanded drought declaration, l reported that a May 7 email from CDFW environmental scientist Dan Troxel revealed the mainstem Klamath is at its highest level “RED,” indicating an imminent or active fish kill.

“Well it seems the unfortunate potential outcomes are already manifesting themselves on the mainstem Klamath. Our partners at USFWS and Yurok Tribal Fisheries are seeing some very distressing signs in the 0+ out-migrating Chinook salmon; a substantial portion of fish showing clinical signs of disease (C. shasta) and even dead fish being caught in outmigrant traps,” he wrote.

“Due to this, the mainstem Klamath is at its highest Readiness Level “RED”, indicating an imminent or active fish kill. Unfortunately these few inch long salmon mortalities don’t draw the same attention as adult fish, but it is just as important to actively monitor the situation and implement KFHAT’s Fish Kill Response plan if deemed necessary,” Troxell stated.

According to the KFHAT report, “The Mid and Lower Klamath are showing signs of diseased and dead Chinook salmon noted by partners at Yurok Tribe. Active juvenile fish kill currently happening. Will continue to monitor situation and re-evaluate within the next few days.”

In regards to the Trinity River, the main tributary of the Klamath River, the Hoopa Valley Tribe on May 13 slammed subordinate officials in the Biden Administration’s Justice and Interior Departments for announcing that they will “defend the Trump administration’s water policies that imperil the rights of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California’s Trinity River basin and ignore overwhelming evidence of financial misconduct that will cost the Federal Taxpayers at least $400 million.”

“The cruel indifference of the Trump Administration’s corruption has reached our homeland,” said Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Byron Nelson, Jr. in a statement. “Left unchecked, it will destroy the fishery on which our people have relied as the foundation of our culture, religion and economy since time immemorial.”

“We are calling on Secretary Haaland to fulfill the federal trust responsibility to our people and rein in the reckless and destructive practices that still afflict the Department of the Interior,” said Hoopa Tribal Fisheries Director, Michael Orcutt.

On the Sacramento River and its tributaries, the situation is so dire that all of the juvenile chinook salmon (smolts) from state fish hatcheries are getting truck rides to saltwater this spring to increase their survival, triggered by projected poor conditions in the Sacramento River and other Central Valley rivers this year.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher