Jessica Cejnar
The Del Norte Triplicate

With another poor year projected for the Klamath River fall chinook run, fisheries scientists are predicting the river could reach overfished status in 2018.

However with better ocean conditions and good winter flows in the river this year, scientists hope that overfished status will be short lived.

“We’re seeing extremely low disease levels so far this year,” said Dave Hillemeier, director of the Yurok Tribe’s fisheries department, referring to the parasite Ceratonova Shasta, which infected juvenile salmon in 2014 and 2015. “We hope that the fish that make it out are going to encounter some good ocean conditions and things will start to turn the corner in three years.”

The projected fall chinook salmon run for 2017 is expected to consist of 11,379 adult fish, according to Marci Yaremko, who represents California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Pacific Fishery Management Council. In 2015, 28,112 chinook salmon made it upstream to spawn. The 2016 escapement consisted of 13,924 adult fish, Yaremko said.

Yaremko informed state legislators of the river’s impending overfished status at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture on May 24.

Under the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan, the Klamath fall chinook stock is considered overfished if the three-year geometric mean of annual spawning salmon fall below 30,525, which is the minimum stock size threshold, according to Yaremko.

The geometric mean from the 2015 and 2016 runs combined with the projected run for 2017 equals 16,453 fish — well below the minimum stock size threshold, Yaremko pointed out.

“Based on the returns we’ve had in the past two years, which have been very poor, we will need to attain a return this year in 2017 of over 70,000 natural spawning adults to the river to avoid hitting that overfished criteria,” she said. “We’re looking at just over 10,000 fish being projected to return and yet in order to avoid entering that overfished condition we’d need to have over 70,000 return. It’s almost a certainty that we’re going to hit that condition in 2018.”

Once a river’s salmon run is declared overfished, scientists evaluate what measures are needed to rebuild the stock, Yaremko said.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council has already taken measures to minimize impacts to this year’s run. A non-tribal harvest of 800 individual Klamath River fish will be allocated to commercial fishing vessels south of Fort Bragg, Yaremko said. Most of the fish brought into San Francisco and even Monterey are from the Sacramento River fall chinook run, she noted.

There will be no commercial ocean fishing for salmon within the Klamath Management Zone, between Humbug Mountain in Oregon and Horse Mountain north of Shelter Cove in Humboldt County.

“The most economically viable way to use those fish was by closing the fishing activity kind of closest to the epicenter of the Klamath,” Yaremko said.

With a projection of less than 12,000 adult chinook entering the Klamath this fall, the California Fish and Game Commission has recommended no recreational fishing take place, according to Kevin Shaffer, chief of fisheries branch for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who also spoke before the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture last month.

Klamath River tribes have also taken a massive hit this year due to the poor salmon returns. The Karuk Tribe canceled its subsistence fishery in the rapids below Ishi Pishi Falls.

And with an allocation of only 650 fish — the lowest on record — the Yurok Tribe canceled its commercial fishery. Tribal Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. told state legislators in May the fish it does catch will go to the tribe’s elders and for ceremonial purposes.

Hillemeier said the last time the Klamath fall chinook run was designated as overfished the Yurok Tribe participated in the rebuilding plan and is sure that the Tribe will participate in a current rebuilding plan.

“The primary purpose of that is to identify the factors that contributed to the current status, the declined status of the stock and identify measures that could be taken to address that,” he said.

For the Klamath River, Hillemeier believes the term “overfished” to be a misnomer since the decline of the fall chinook run is due to drought conditions in the river in 2014 and 2015, high level of disease and poor ocean conditions. He noted that a stock can be overfished even when there is no fishing pressure upon it.

The last time the Klamath River fall chinook run was considered overfished was from 2004 to 2006 and back in the early 1990s, Hillemeier said.

Despite the dire condition of this year’s fall chinook run and the previous two years, Hillemeier said given good fresh water conditions and ocean conditions, salmon can be resilient. However with a stock of less than 12,000 fish, there could be some genetic impacts.

“I think it’s projected to be the lowest on record,” Hillemeier said, referring to the 2017 fall chinook run. “It’s by far the smallest allocation the Yurok Tribe has received.”

Last summer, the Yurok Tribe was successful in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation over its failure to change its irrigation diversion plans despite the high level of C. Shasta. The water releases allocated to the Tribe during the winter will help minimize the number of polychete worms that allows the disease to thrive.

This year, however, good winter flows likely scoured the polychete worms out of the river, making the concern for disease minimal for this year’s juvenile chinook, Hillemeier said. He also noted the planned removal of four Klamath River dams will further improve river conditions.

“We’re on a trajectory to see that happen in 2020,” Hillemeier said, referring to the dams. “It’s really important that (the fisheries’) co-managers continue to work toward that end. That is one of the primary needs to address these disease problems and problems in general within the Klamath basin ecosystem.”

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