Massive Fish Kill On Klamath River
by Dan Bacher
The decision by the Bush administration to divert water to subsidized farmers in the Klamath Basin this year, in spite of legal challenges by the Yurok and Hupa tribes, environmentalists and fishing groups, has resulted in a massive, unprecedented die-off of a large portion of the fall chinook salmon run on the Klamath River.
Nobody is sure exactly how many fish have died, but it is the worst fishery disaster to ever hit the Klamath watershed in recent memory, according to tribal representatives and recreational anglers. The salmon are apparently dying from disease caused by stress and warm water conditions reaching nearly 80 degrees.
“The fish kill is a lot worse than everybody thinks,” said a shaken Walt Lara, the Requa representative to the Yurok Tribal Council, in a phone interview with me on Monday, September 23. “It’s a lot larger than anything I’ve seen reported on the T.V. news or in the newspapers. The whole chinook run will be impacted, probably by 85 to 95 percent. And the fish are dying as we speak.They’re swimming around in circles. They bump up against your legs when you’re standing in the water. These are beautiful, chrome-bright fish that are dying, not fish that are already spawned out.”
Lara estimated that there’s at least 82 to 100 fish in each one-tenth mile, with probably up to 1,000 dead fish per river mile. “In the lower 40 miles of river, we’re looking at 40,000 dead salmon. In comparison, the allocation for the whole tribal fishery this year was 39,000,” he explained.
Lara said he had been fishing on the river for four days and was so disgusted by what he saw that he had to put up his net and fishing rod. “The water temperature was 78 degrees and rising when I left,” he said. “The fish were dying before my eyes!”
The majority of dead fish that Lara’s seen are chinooks, but he’s also seen lots of steelhead and coho salmon stranded along the bank. “Even the suckers are floating by dead,” he said. “And the stench is getting worse every day. The coming years, from 2004 to 2007, will be impacted by this run.”
While he was in Klamath Glen, Lara saw one of the tribal elders, an 82 year old woman, with her grandson surveying the carnage. “She told me she had never seen anything like it in all her years,” stated Lara.
Tribal representatives and recreational anglers say the massive fish kill is the direct result of mismanagement of the Klamath River by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Last year, the Bureau, after considering evaluating water supplies, determined that there wasn’t enough to support both fish populations and farmers.
To protect Klamath River coho salmon, listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau in the spring of 2001 cut off water to many Klamath Basin farmers. The farmers protested and filed legal action, supported by “wise use” organizations like the Pacific Legal Foundation, resulting in the release of water for their crops.
This year, Secretary of the Interior, Gale A. Norton, directed the Bureau to release the water to the farmers, resulting in unprecedented low and warm water conditions on the Klamath. The current die off is apparently the result of a tragic miscalculation by the Bureau in considering this as a normal year for water allocation, when in reality it was a drought year.
“In July, we had to reclassify the water year type from a normal to a dry year because of low precipitation in the watershed,” said Dave Jones, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman. “But we’re providing the water called for by the biological opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Releases from Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath are now 760 cfs.”
The National Academy of Science in a draft report found that there was no biological justification for the cutoff last year. This politically motivated report is often cited by “wise use” movement leaders and right wing talk show hosts as backing for their claims that salmon don’t need the water that the tribes, environmental groups and commercial and sport fishing groups say they do.
Well, the incompetence of these federal “biologists” and the treachery of their supporters is demonstrated by the results of their biological opinion - an unprecedented fishery catastrophe of the Klamath River. It is clear that the “science” that they decided to practice was not “natural science” but “political science.”
Recreational anglers fishing the river were outraged by the fish kill. Dan Carter, a Klamath River fishing said, “this favoring of farmers over fish has got to stop. Why can’t these farmers find some ways to conserve water, like turning their wells on for the first two month of the season, before they start diverting Klamath water. This would result in a reserve of water for the fish. There just has to be some happy medium between the water needs of farmers and fish.”
Carter attributed the fish kill to mismanagement by the Bureau of Reclamation. “Around September 4, the river level rose rose and the water temperature cooled to 62 degrees,” he said. “Thousands of salmon entered the river. Then the water managers dropped the flow to the low level it is now. The fish started dying in big numbers around September 19. The fish kill will continue unless they put some water in the river.”
Jim Martin, spokesman for the Recreational Fishing Alliance(RFA)-NorCal, was likewise appalled by this man-made fish disaster. "This appalling and totally preventable fish kill is a slap in the face to conservation-minded salmon anglers, who make every effort to abide by the law,” he said. “RFA-NorCal protests this illegal take of fish by welfare farmers who place their own private interests above all else. Unfortunately, a call to 1-800-CALTIP can do nothing to bag these wasteful poachers who have taken a significant portion of this year's salmon run on the Klamath.”
As tribal biologists and the state and federal governments continued to assess the damage on the Klamath, one thing is clear: this fish kill will have an impact on the region’s economy for years to come.
Brian Long, a Yurok tribal fisherman and former BIA agent, said he is essentially finished for the season. “From the Indian point of view, we have lost the run this year, we have lost the market, since nobody wants to buy our fish,” he said. “I went to a fish buyer in Weaverville with 44 salmon this week and they said, ‘No, we don’t want to buy your fish,’ after hearing of the fish kill on the Klamath.”
He emphasized, “not only are the Indian and sport fishermen hurt by the die off, but all of the related businesses, including trailer parks, grocery stores and gas stations, will suffer economically. It’s a big chain of loss where everybody loses except the Klamath Basin farmers.”
The scene of carnage contrasts dramatically with the “wise use” rhetoric of the Pacific Legal Foundation and other groups who are attempting to gut environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, and to halt releases of Klamath River water for fish. In a legal challenge in February to overturn the federal government’s listing of Klamath Basin salmon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Russ Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation proclaimed:
"We expect that victory in this case will go a long way toward restoring environmental balance to the Klamath Basin. The Fisheries Service is guilty of using junk science to advance a political agenda. Our rivers and streams are teeming with salmon, yet farmers have been pushed into bankruptcy, businesses are closing, and a way of life is being destroyed while government officials explain away listing fish that really aren’t endangered at all.”
The Klamath is indeed “teeming” with fish now - dead chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and suckers! And the “way of life” that is being destroyed is that of the Yurok and Hupa tribes, sportfishing guides, commercial fishermen, charter boats and all of the North Coast businesses that depend upon Klamath River salmon for their survival.
Recreational anglers and members of the Yurok and Hupa tribes were at press time recovering from the shock of the fish kill. It is clear that the tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and environmental activists must unite and massively protest the Bush administration’s favoring of unsustainable, subsidized welfare farmers in the Klamath Basin at the expense of everybody else. All of those impacted by this catastrophe should be compensated in full by the federal government, since it is the U.S. Department of Interior that is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of salmon on the Klamath River.
Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical song writer from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org