Dead fish clog the low-flowing Klamath

Interior Department denies responsibility for dead salmon and steelhead

  • BODY COUNT: A Yurok tribal member checks the gills of dead chinook salmon

    Elizabeth J. Finney photo courtesy WaterWatch of Oregon

The Klamath River, which winds through idyllic Northern California forests and Indian reservations, was the gory scene of a lost battle last month. In late September, a 30-mile stretch of the lower river was choked with thousands of dead chinook and coho salmon and steelhead - the largest fish kill in Northwest history. Tens of thousands more floated in the low, tepid waters and struggled to move upstream to spawn. Some biologists estimate that as many as 30,000 fish have died.

The die-off comes in the wake of a Bush administration decision to lower river flows in the Klamath. Last year, the administration reversed a Clinton-era decision to force farmers to reduce their water use and keep water in the Klamath for endangered fish, citing a controversial National Academy of Sciences report (HCN, 3/4/02: Klamath Basin II: The saga continues).

As a result, this fall's river flow - a quarter of last year's - was too low to stimulate the salmon and steelhead to move upstream and spawn. Fish lingered in the low, warm waters, which became a breeding ground for a disease known as "gill rot." Crowded conditions then allowed disease to flourish among the stressed and weakened fish.

The fish kill does not surprise some scientists. Dave Hillemeier, a biologist with the Yurok Tribe, predicted problems as early as this spring, when thousands of dead juvenile fish were found along the banks of the river. But the Bureau of Reclamation ignored early warnings.

"When you see the tens of thousands of dead stinking carcasses, it's obvious that something went wrong," says Hillemeier. "What's less obvious is when the spring fry die. But we need water throughout the entire year."

When the reported number of dead salmon and steelhead rocketed into the tens of thousands, the Bureau scrambled to release water from upstream reservoirs. Officials from both the Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deny that low river flows were responsible for the fish kill, however. A Bureau press release states the agency has been "studying the situation since it began to determine exactly why the fish were dying."

Environmental groups say the Department of Interior is shirking responsibility for poor river management. "The Bush administration is trying to turn science and reality on its head, and shift blame," says Steve Pedery with WaterWatch of Oregon. "Because when you've got 30,000 dead fish as a result (of a decision), it's not a good reflection."

Laura Paskus is an assistant editor at High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Jeffrey McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation, 916/978-5100
  • Steve Pedery, WaterWatch of Oregon, 503/295-4039 ext. 26.


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