By Laura Brown
Triplicate staff writer
Water levels on the Klamath River are still in the hands of the federal government, but the health of small streams feeding the river is in the hands of Yurok tribal fisheries.
"We concentrate a lot on tributaries. That's where we can make a difference," said Ben Laukka, a fishery biologist for the Tribe.
Rain or shine, Laukka, Dave Weskamp and Aldaron McCovey don their hipwaders and enter the chilly waters, sometimes up to their chests, to check fish traps they have in place on McGarvey and Terwer creeks. The information they collect will be used by biologists to make decisions on the river's health. That's especially important now, in light of last year's Klamath fish-kill where 33,000 adult salmon died.
Low water flows, caused by the diversion of water from the Klamath in Oregon and from Klamath tributaries in California, were viewed as the single most important cause of the die off by state Fish and Game earlier this year.
With snowpack in the mountains that feed Upper Klamath Lake only 50 percent of normal, the fear of another die off resulting from low flows is very much alive. Work by tribal fisheries and data collecting are as crucial as ever.
Yesterday the biolgists found little compared to previous days: a three-year-old cutthroat and a 37-mm coho fry.
"Not a very stellar catch," Weskamp said as he inspected the cutthroat, measured it and released it back into the creek. "Our trap was fishing really good, but with the storms, the water is up. These are smart fish. They'll find a small hole and escape if they can."
Each day, sometimes twice a day, someone checks the traps and cleans the traps of debris. The fish are identified, measured and classified by their condition, whether they are a smolt going to the ocean or still in the "par" or creek stage.
On the weekends, they take turns with the fish-trap responsibility, even though Weskamp commutes from Brookings, Ore. and Laukka from McKinleyville. Sometimes, the traps are checked in the middle of the night by fishery technicians living in closer proximity.
The Yurok Reservation, which runs a mile along each bank of the Klamath River from the mouth 40 miles upstream to Weitchpec, is bordered by hundreds-of-thousands of acres of timberland.
Over the years, logging and road building have had a big impact on the tributaries important to fish spawning.
Much of the woody habitat essential to the survival of sensitive species such as coho has been significantly degraded over the years. What the Tribe, the California Conservation Corp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game have worked collaboratively together on in recent years is an effort to restore some of those essential spawning grounds.
"Restoration is going to take time but I think we'll definitely see some improvements," said Weskamp. He also sees the push for increasing flows down the mainstem essential in restoring the numbers of threatened coho salmon and other species of fish in the system.
"Everything we've done seems to definitely show that flow is a factor for all fish. It's pretty obvious fish need the water. They need adequate flows to move freely upriver," said Weskamp.
While the overall health of the tributaries has seen improvement, there is still the threat of pesticides used on timberlands as well as logging operations. "They are still harvesting timber. That's having effects on these tributaries," said Weskamp.
The crew has a key to Simpson gates, property where much of the fish-observing takes place. The three make their way down a steep incline, using trees as walkways, through dense concentrations of ferns, before appearing at the shore of Terwer Creek raging with spring runoff. Two adult steelhead were seen darting in the water near the exposed gravel of a "redd" lying beneath the swift current.
On Terwer Creek, a more sophisticated method of funneling fish, the rotary-screw trap, resembling a floating cement mixer, spins at 10 rpm. McCovey waded out to the trap, climbed aboard and began fishing bark and leaves out with a net. The catch of the day ¬ó three small skulpin.
On days like this when there is not much action in the creeks, there are always reports to be filed back at the office, weir panels to build, nets to mend and tree planting on decommissioned logging roads.
And soon, when the spring water has quieted down to a more manageable level, Blue Creek's traps will be put into place and the counting season will get cooking for outmigrating juvenile fish.
During low water in late summer and early fall, the biologists put on drysuits and conduct snorkel surveys. It's one of the better ways to get a handle on elusive coho numbers.
With the snowpack low and still no resolution about how Klamath River water will be allocated, Laukka said he is convinced another fish-kill on the Klamath could happen this year.
Flows released from Iron Gate Dam should be twice as high, Laukka said.
"I'm pretty sure if there is not an adult fish-kill, there will be a juvenile (kill)," Laukka said.