Salmon surveys find low fish counts on Salmon, Trinity rivers

With recent fish counting surveys on two Klamath River tributaries showing alarmingly low numbers for a celebrated wild Chinook salmon run, fisheries experts are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of the ongoing statewide drought and the possibility of a devastating fish kill in the near future when fall-run salmon begin to enter the system.

A survey sponsored by the Salmon River Restoration Council and U.S. Forest Service that covered the entirety of the Salmon River found only 256 adult chinook salmon on July 24 — the fourth lowest count in 20 years and a large deviation from the some of the highest counts from recent years.

“When you’re hand counting a few hundred individual fish,” Karuk Tribe Natural Resources Policy Advocate Craig Tucker said with a dry laugh, “you’re in big trouble.

The South Fork Trinity River is also showing a low presence of wild chinook salmon adults, with the Hayfork-based Watershed Research and Training Center only finding 20 fish in a 60-mile survey of the river earlier this month — the lowest number since 1989.

The center’s Executive Director Joshua Smith said their survey is normally performed in mid-August, but said it was done earlier this year out of concern of the mortality of the fish caused by low-flow conditions and high water temperatures.

In the 1960s, they had 10,000 to 12,000 chinook in the South Fork Trinity alone,” he said. “They were tagging 200 fish per hole. Now we have 200 fish on average per year in the last decade. There’s been a few little spikes, but we’re really on the ragged edge.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is set to conduct a formal survey of the river this week, Smith said.

Fisheries experts are not certain why the tributaries have such a low salmon population this year, but say that some of the fish are likely “trapped” on the lower Klamath River trying to find cooler waters from creeks and tributaries.

What makes this even more alarming is that a deadly parasite called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, or “ich,” was found on a sample of spring-run chinook salmon last week at the mouth of Blue Creek on the lower Klamath River.

With high water temperatures making fish more susceptible to the parasite and other diseases, senior fisheries biologist Michael Belchik of the Yurok Tribe’s fisheries program said the current heat wave in eastern areas of the county like Orleans where temperatures climbed above 110 degrees are only making matters worse for the fish.

However, recent surveys show that the ich is not spreading exponentially as it did in September 2002, which resulted in a fish-kill of tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead trout on the lower Klamath River.

“It’s still a cause for concern because this disease has a really explosive potential,” Belchik said. “We have seen it five weeks earlier than last year.”

If conditions do not change by early fall and the ich begins to spread, Tucker said such conditions could spell trouble for the 120,000 fall-run chinook salmon expected to enter the lower Klamath River this year.

When the fall-run salmon show up, the ich is already there waiting for them,” Tucker said.


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