By Laura Brown
Triplicate staff writer
There's plenty of Klamath River water this year for fish, farms and fowl, according to a spokesman from the Bureau of Reclamation.
But Yurok Tribe biologists are not convinced.
"This is going to be a wetter year than originally forecasted. It's good news for everybody. There's more water in the system," said Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of regulating irrigation deliveries and sending water downstream for fish.
McCracken said an official announcement will be made on Friday.
But that doesn't quell fears among tribal biologists who still bear fresh memories of a huge fish kill that occurred last fall.
Dave Hillemeir, fisheries program director for the Yurok Tribe, says he worries that the proposed water flows the bureau set for June are inadequate.
The progeny of the fish that survived the fish kill are now in the river system, and Hillemeir is asking that extra water the government purchased from farmers now in a so-called "water bank" be released at this critical time.
"That's why we're concerned with June proposed flows. We want to make sure they do well and continue to the ocean."
The water bank was initially supposed to be divided up between the early spring months to ensure smolts had plenty of cover and water and in the late summer months when water temperatures are at their highest. But with the spring storms, the extra water wasn't needed this spring.
National Marine Fisheries Service is currently determining when that water will be used.
Several biologists have been looking into how flow levels and water temperatures affect salmon migrating up the Klamath River.
This is the second year the Yurok Tribe has led a collaborative study following fish from the moment they enter the river to the day they reach their spawning grounds.
"We go as far as they go," said the study's coordinator and fishery biologist, Josh Strange.
It is the first study of its kind on the Klamath, and researchers are hopeful it will lead them to a better understanding of how changes in a fish's environment play a role in its migrational behavior.
Last year, in the months leading up to the massive fish kill, they discovered that thermal refugia the cooler deep areas in the river fish use as refuge in the summer months are critical during hot periods.
When fish are subjected to water temperatures above 72 degrees, it can have lethal results or can impede migration. Last year the entire month of July had reached this critical threshhold.
How stress impacts fish became obvious when thousands of fish began washing up dead on the river's banks last September.
The cool water that fish are enjoying now is already beginning to warm up as flow levels drop.
Strange and his assistant, Josh Lewis, are keeping a close eye on any observable stress indicators, such as lesions on fish gills or general lethargy.
Last year, more spring-run salmon died at an earlier time in the season than biologists had seen in previous years. This and other indicators that fish were headed for trouble were brought up to bureau officials when the tribes pleaded with them to release more water.
"The fish kill put a spotlight on the fall run, but we were having problems with the spring run, as well," said Strange.
At the mouth of the river, Strange, Lewis and several others work together to capture bright springers using modern-day driftnets. Once caught, the fish is raced across the sand on an ATV to the tagging station set up on the beach.
Within minutes, a radio tag is inserted into the fish's stomach, and an archival tag is fitted onto its back before it's released back into the river.
The radio tag sends a beeping signal that is picked up by what looks like a TV antennae. The archival tag records water temperature data for the fish's entire migration.
A $50 reward is being offered by the tribe to fishermen who reel in one of the tagged fish. They can contact Josh Strange at 707-498-0563.
The tags allow Strange and other members involved in the study to track a fish and calculate its body temperature compared to the temperature of the river.
The fish's entire migrational pattern will also be documented by the tags and will help scientists reveal when and where fish decide to hold up in deeper pools and how long they stay there.
Some fish were detected in a pool for a month at a time last year during the hottest time of the season.
Timing is crucial for the fish that live exclusively off body fat during their migration. Any deviations from their schedule could hamper how successfully they spawn.
"How many last year didn't spawn properly because they were too stressed?" asked Strange. "You look at salmon, they're so tough, they're survivors. Yet if they get too stressed, they can't take it," said Strange.