Considering the vast, mighty nature of the Klamath River — the second-largest in California — small tributaries in Del Norte County like Hunter and Terwer creeks might seem insignificant.
Sarah Beesley of the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Program, looks over several logjams on Terwer Creek designed to improve salmon habitat. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
But findings from recent years show that coho salmon and steelhead born throughout the Klamath Basin, even hundreds of miles upriver near Yreka, use the small tributaries in the Lower Klamath River as a refuge to grow before migrating out to the ocean.
Because of the creeks’ importance to steelhead and coho salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a federal agency recently announced another grant-funded project with the Yurok Tribe to restore fish habitat.
The tribe will receive $128,000 from NOAA Fisheries to construct 48 complex wood jams, which naturally provided fish habitat before humans stripped streams of wood, across more than a mile of Hunter Creek, and plant up to 300 trees on creekside acreage.
“It’s not just important to Lower Klamath populations but it also benefits populations in Scott and Shasta rivers, the upper- and mid-Klamath, and the Salmon and Trinity rivers,” said Bob Pagliuco, habitat restoration specialist with NOAAâ€ˆFisheries. “It’s a pretty interesting phenomenon that helped us rethink the way we’ve managed these fisheries. These lower tributaries act as a cradle for the entire basin.”
Warm for the winter
While chinook salmon spend only a few short months in their natal streams before going to the ocean, coho salmon and steelhead born this winter will not enter the ocean until spring 2015. These fish seek out a safe place to spend that next winter.
“Over-wintering habitat is critical for survival of coho and steelhead,” said Dave Hillemeier, Yurok Tribe Fisheries program manager. “Lower Klamath tributary habitat is really important for that over-wintering.”
Over the past six years, the Yurok and Karuk tribes and state and federal fishery managers, have used electronically scannable tags in fish to determine that a substantial slice of steelhead and coho from the entire Klamath Basin prefer to spend much of that time in small coastal tributaries, Hillemeier said.
Coho and steelhead might prefer the Lower Klamath tributaries for over-wintering, because the coastal climate makes them warmer than tributaries found inland, allowing for more growth, Hillemeier said.
The survival rate is higher for coho and steelhead that over-winter in Lower Klamath streams, because the fish only swim a couple miles in the Klamath, avoiding disease that attacks juvenile fish.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in recent years to restore Lower Klamath tributaries including Terwer Creek, Hunter Creek, McGarvey Creek. The work includes installing large wood structures that create a more natural pool and riffle stream, planting mature willow baffles that slow down flow and capture sediment in rain events, and creating side-channels and off-channel ponds that fish use for over-wintering, spawning and rearing.
Although chinook do not spend an extra winter in fresh water, the restored habitat provides important spawning and rearing habitat, Hillemeier said.
Much of the restoration work takes place on timberland owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, which owns almost 148,000 acres in the Klamath Basin, and works with the tribe and others during the restoration project planning stages.
The steelhead trout run in the Klamath Basin lasts nine months — one of the longest in America — and hundreds of fishing guides, lodges, RV parks and retailers benefit from a healthy fishery.
In addition, the Yurok Tribe harvests chinook salmon for subsistence purposes and commercially during surplus years.
This year, Yurok commercial fishermen made about $3.5 million by harvesting roughly 52,000 salmon for at least $5 a pound, Hillemeier said.
The Yurok Fisheries restoration work is 100 percent grant-funded with primary funding partners including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Fisheries Restoration Grant Program), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries.