Yuroks: Water managers’ policies put salmon at risk
The Yurok Tribe has filed notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for massive fish disease outbreaks on the Klamath River in back-to-back years, according to a press release.
“We cannot stand by and do nothing while our salmon hover over the brink of extinction,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We will not continue to watch water managers jeopardize the fate of our fish and our river.”
According to the release issued Friday, 91 percent of the juvenile Klamath salmon were infected with a deadly parasite in 2015 as were a nearly identical number of fish in 2014. Given the nearly 100 percent mortality rate associated with the disease, approximately 90 percent of the Chinook salmon and likely an equal quantity of coho died in the mainstem Klamath River during those years, according to the notice. This year’s predicted adult salmon run is one of the lowest on record, prompting the Yurok Tribe to make what O’Rourke said was a difficult decision to completely forgo all commercial fishing in 2016.
“This is not acceptable” O’Rourke said, in the release. “The health of the Yurok Tribe is inextricably connected to that of the Klamath River. We are advocating for taking actions that will give fish a fighting chance, such as putting more water in the river, restoring riparian areas and removing the four main Klamath dams.”
In April 2016, the Yurok Tribe, California and Oregon as well as the Obama administration and dam owner PacifiCorp finalized an agreement to send a plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for decommissioning the lower four Klamath dams. Dam removal is expected to happen in 2020. Included in the pact is a provision requiring these stakeholders to keep working together on a resolution to the revolving water crises on the Klamath, the release said.
“The Yurok Tribe plans to honor our pledge to continue collaborating on a water sharing strategy that is favorable for both fish and farms,” O’Rourke said in the release.
According to the release, the flows on the Klamath are the result of how the Bureau of Reclamation delivers irrigation supplies to the 225,000-acre Klamath Irrigation Project. BOR’s irrigation plan must comply with specific standards put in place to protect coho salmon, a fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. These requirements are established by the National Marine Fisheries Service in what is called a “Biological Opinion or BiOp.”
In 2014 and 2015, the salmon were sickened by a parasite known as Ceratonova Shasta — previously named Ceratormyxa Shasta.
According to the BiOp, if “the percent of C. Shasta (Ceratonova Shasta) infections for Chinook salmon juveniles in the mainstem Klamath River between Shasta River and Trinity River during May to July exceed these levels (i.e., 54 percent infection via histology or 49 percent infection via QPCR), re-initiation of formal consultation will be necessary.”
The degree of an outbreak is determined by the number of ailing Chinook, a close surrogate for coho, because there are more of these non-listed fish available for analysis, the release said.
NMFS has stated the agency will not reinitiate consultation on the BiOp and is instead going to amend the number fish permitted to perish as a result of the water diversions in the upper basin, the release said.
“These irresponsible management decisions will create destructive consequences that will be felt by our children, our grandchildren and many future generations,” O’Rourke said.
According to the release, the Klamath dams create the perfect conditions for Ceratonova Shasta to thrive. Prior to infecting salmon, the disease organism spends the beginning of its lifecycle with a different host, a polychaete worm that lives in the debris at the bottom of the river. Prior to the installation of the dam project, massive winter flows carrying a modest coarse sediment load would scour the riverbed, clearing it of the detritus favored by the worm.
The impassable barrier also forces fish to congregate in abnormally high concentrations below Iron Gate Dam, where the parasite is passed from one fish to the next. At this time of year, the warm water temperatures are often close to the lethal level for salmon, which compromises the fish’s immune response and increases the potential for mortality, the release said.
In an effort to mimic major winter storms, the BiOp calls for sending large pulse flows down the river in an attempt to disrupt the lifecycle of the parasite. These past two years clearly illustrate that this half measure is simply not enough to protect fish from the pathogen, the release said.
“The BiOp is like a Band-Aid on a seriously infected wound that only surgery can fix,” O’Rourke said. “To truly heal the river, we must extract the lower four dams before they completely kill the Klamath.”
Both spokespersons for NMFS, and the BOR, said their agencies cannot comment on cases currently in litigation.
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