West Coast
Alex Schwartz / Herald and News

CA - Dead in the water: Serious fish kill consumes the Klamath River

As it enters the Yurok Reservation, the Lower Klamath River is as picturesque as it gets. Clear water rushes over gentle rapids, framed by verdant hills and a cerulean sky. An untrained eye would never notice the devastation beneath the surface — save for the tiny fish floating lifeless in the water.

WEITCHPEC, Calif. — As it enters the Yurok Reservation, the Lower Klamath River is as picturesque as it gets. Clear water rushes over gentle rapids, framed by verdant hills and a cerulean sky. An untrained eye would never notice the devastation beneath the surface — save for the tiny fish floating lifeless in the water.

Over the past several weeks, an outbreak of the parasite Ceratonova shasta has ripped through young salmon throughout the lower reaches of the Klamath watershed. Driven by high temperatures and low flows out of Iron Gate Dam, the disease is resulting in what the Yurok Tribe is calling a “catastrophic” fish kill.

Last week, nearly every single juvenile salmon trapped by researchers and fisheries staff was infected with C. shasta, and a majority of them were dead.

“This feels like failure,” said Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers. “It feels like some real, deep failure.”

The alarm began sounding around the beginning of April, when spore concentrations of C. shasta measured at six monitoring sites along the river between Iron Gate Dam and Tully Creek, in the heart of the Yurok Reservation, began to climb. The number of spores per liter of water (considered concerning once it reaches between five and 10) went above 70 at the Beaver Creek site, in the heart of the infectious zone downstream of Iron Gate Dam.

By late April, more than half the juvenile salmon captured by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in that area tested positive for C. shasta. Genetic analyses found that, during the first week of May, 63% of captured fish contained enough of the parasite’s DNA to be considered severely sick — and likely unable to recover from the disease.

At the end of last week, the Yurok Fisheries Department collected 106 fish in a screw trap near Weitchpec, just a few hundred feet upstream from where the Trinity River joins the Klamath in its march to the Pacific. Eighty of them were already dead.

“In a regular trapping season, to see three to five is normal,” said Jamie Holt, a fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe.

On Wednesday morning, Holt and fellow fisheries technician Gilbert Myers launched a boat out to the screw trap to check on that day’s catch. The trap looks like a giant rotating cement drum attached to a barge on the southern bank of the river. A corkscrew within the drum funnels fish and other river creatures into a submerged box at the back of the barge, powered by the river’s flow.


Listen also: Going Deep on the Klamath River Crisis, the New Washington Climate Policy, and the State of Fisheries Community Culture

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