The California Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday recommended the Klamath-Trinity spring-run chinook as a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act list.

This recommendation stems from a petition filed in 2017 by the Karuk Tribe and the Salmon River Restoration Council. A final decision to list the species as endangered or threatened will be made in 12 months, according to a press release from the Karuk Tribe.

In the meantime, the Klamath-Trinity spring chinook salmon will be afforded the protections of a listed species, according to the release.

A similar petition to list Klamath-Trinity spring chinook under the federal Endangered Species Act is also under review, according to the press release.

However, according to Craig Tucker, natural resources policy advocate for the Karuk Tribe, overfishing is not the reason spring-run chinook are threatened. It’s about habitat availability, he said.

“California felt like they were forced to pass fishing restrictions and we think that’s part of the solution, but there is a run of hatchery-origin spring chinook,” Tucker said. “(The California Department of Fish and Wildlife) will design fishing restrictions that allow for sport fishing in the Klamath-Trinity system to target hatchery-origin fish and allow the recovery of wild fish. We’re really committed to working with the department and recreational fishermen on a proposal like that.”

The Karuk Tribe’s press release cites two studies by Michael Miller at the University of California, Davis, outlining the genetic differences between the fall chinook run and the spring chinook run. Spring chinook enter rivers swollen with snow melt in the spring and travel to the upper reaches of the watershed, according to the press release. They reside in cold water areas during the summer until they spawn and die in the fall, according to the press release.

Fall-run chinook migrate into the rivers in the autumn where they spawn and die soon after entering fresh water, according to the press release.

According to Tucker, dams are the greatest threat to spring-run chinook. Efforts by the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation to begin removing four dams on the Klamath River will greatly benefit the species, Tucker said.

However, he noted, improvements to the fishery as a result will take time and the species will need help as it recolonizes the upper reaches of the Klamath Basin.

“Already the Oregon Department of Fisheries and the Klamath tribes of Oregon are starting to put together fisheries reintroduction plans,” Tucker said. “After dam removal, what are we going to do to help fish? Conversations are going on among fish managers, do we have some kind of hatchery program? Where do we get the brood stock we would use for such a program? These are questions we’re putting our heads together to try to answer right now.”

Tucker also noted there is concern about the irrigation project in the Upper Klamath basin, a different issue than dam removal. He noted irrigators currently have to make sure there is enough water for coho salmon, which is also listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, however chinook have different needs than coho.

“Coho and chinook spawn in different areas, they have different run timing,” Tucker said. “the listing should force a consideration of the needs of chinook when we’re developing irrigation plans and other development in the watershed.”

The population of spring-run chinook salmon once numbered in the hundreds of thousands on the Klamath River, according to the Karuk Tribe’s press release. Last summer, divers at the Salmon River Cooperative Spring Chinook and Summer Steelhead Population Snorkel Survey found only 160 spring-run chinook, the third lowest return in more than 28 years since the counts started. Divers found even less on the South Fork Trinity River, according to the press release.

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