Yurok Tribe finds deadly disease in Klamath River salmon

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The Klamath River salmon fishery, an integral part of the culture, religion and livelihoods of the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk Tribes of Northern California, is going through some tough times this year.

Because of the record-low run of fall-run Chinook salmon projected by federal fishery managers earlier this year, the Yurok Tribe, the largest Indian Tribe in California, held its Klamath Salmon Festival this August without serving traditionally-cooked salmon to the public as it has done for 54 years.

Then on August 19, the Tribe announced that Yurok Fisheries crews conducting routine fish disease monitoring have found that salmon in the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation are infected with a potentially deadly disease.

Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, commonly known as ich (pronounced “ick”), is capable of causing large fish kill events, according to the Tribe. Ich was the primary pathogen that caused the 2002 fish kill in the Klamath River and killed more than 35,000 adult Chinook salmon and steelhead after the disease spread in low, warm conditions spurred by Bush administration water policies that favored irrigators over fish and downstream water users.

Michael Belchik, Senior Fisheries Biologist for the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program. said the diseases was found at relatively low severity in the Klamath River last year, but is back this year at “concerning levels.”

“It appears that a small number of adult salmon migrated upriver in extremely warm water temperatures and then became stuck in a relatively small thermal refuge where they are getting infected with the pathogen,” stated Belchik. “What this means for the health of the fall Chinook run that is yet to migrate upstream is unclear.”

Belchick said diseases such as ich are exacerbated by low flows and water temperatures that currently exist in the lower Klamath and Trinity Rivers.

In a statement, the Tribe said it “will be working closely with Federal, State, and Tribal partners to determine what management actions are necessary to prevent further spread of ich and protect the main portion of the fall Chinook salmon run which has not entered the river as of yet.”

“We take this threat to our fish very seriously, and we’re looking at every option to protect our fish. We don’t want to go through another catastrophe like the fish kill in 2002, and we will do anything we can to avoid that outcome this year,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke, Chairman of the Yurok Tribe.

An alarmingly low number of fall run Chinook salmon are expected to return to the Klamath this year, due to adverse river water conditions during the past few drought years, combined with poor ocean conditions.

The total combined subsistence salmon allocation for the Hoopa Valley and Yurok Tribes this fall is just 7400 fish. The allocations of Klamath fall-run Chinook salmon for the ocean recreational and commercial fisheries, as well as the in-river recreational fishery, are also very small this season.

In March, Dr. Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) forecasted an abundance of only 142,200 Klamath River fall Chinooks in the ocean this year, based on the returns of two-year-old salmon, called “jacks” and “jills.”

O’Farrell said the 2016 abundance forecast for Klamath River fall Chinook is 93,393 for age 3, 45,105 for age 4 and 3,671 for age 3. The abundance forecast for the salmon that are expected to return to the river to spawn is just 41,211 fish this season — and the fishery managers must target an escapement of at least 30,909 fish.

The depressed salmon run is arriving this fall as the Klamath River Tribes and fishing groups are engaged in litigation against the federal government and federal water contractors over their failure to protect the river’s salmon. On July 29, the Hoopa Valley Tribe filed a lawsuit against the federal government for violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) over management actions that have imperiled Coho salmon on the Klamath. (http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/7/29/1554325/-Hoopa-Valley-Tribe-Files-ESA-Lawsuit-to-Protect-Salmon)

“This ESA suit is not the warning of a miner’s canary; it is the tsunami siren alerting North Coast communities of impending environmental catastrophe and cultural devastation for the Hoopa Valley Tribe,” said Chairman Ryan Jackson.

The Tribe filed the litigation against the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division, to protect the Coho salmon, listed as an endangered species under the ESA.

The Hoopa lawsuit is expected to be followed by several other lawsuits. On July 20, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), Institute for Fisheries Resources, and Klamath Riverkeeper, represented by Earthjustice, put Reclamation and NMFS on 60-day notice that they could be sued under the federal Endangered Species Act if they fail to reopen and improve water management in the Klamath River.

The 60-day notice by Earthjustice followed similar notices sent by the Yurok and Karuk Tribes in June. Citing a disease infection rate of 90% of sampled juvenile salmon in 2015, the Karuk Tribe presented Reclamation and NMFS with a 60 day notice of intent to sue over violations of the ESA.

“We cannot allow mismanagement by federal agencies to destroy what little remains of our fisheries,” said Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery

In announcing their 60 day notice to sue, Yurok Chairman O’Rourke said, “We cannot stand by and do nothing while our salmon hover over the brink of extinction. We will not continue to watch water managers jeopardize the fate of our fish and our river.”

Meanwhile, Tribes, fishermen and environmentalists continue to push for the removal of four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath to reopen the upper watershed for spawning migrations by salmon and steelhead. On April 6, representatives of the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce, the States of Oregon and California, the Yurok Tribe, the Karuk Tribe and PacifiCorp signed an agreement clearing the path for dam removal on the river.  (http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/4/7/1511799/-Tribes-State-and-Feds-Sign-Klamath-Dam-Removal-Agreement)

At the same time that the lawsuits and dam removal process move forward, Governor Jerry Brown is promoting his Delta Tunnels project, the “California WaterFix,” that tunnels opponents say will devastate the Klamath and Trinity River ecosystems if it isn’t stopped. Critics say the twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will hasten the extinction of Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and long fin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

Massive quantities of Trinity River water are every year diverted to the Sacramento River watershed and the Delta to be exported through the state and federal pumping facilities to the Westlands Water District and agribusiness tycoons including Linda and Stewart Resnick, owners of The Wonderful Company, in Kern County.