The Yurok Tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations filed a lawsuit July 31 against the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service, citing low flows and high salmon disease rates under the federal agency’s new management plan for the Klamath River.
The groups are represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
The tribe’s press release contends that a recently implemented Klamath Biological Opinion has created environmental conditions that worsened an outbreak of the lethal pathogen Ceratonova shasta (C. shasta), which infected an observed majority of this year’s juvenile salmon.
An official of the Bureau of Reclamation said the agency could not comment on the lawsuit.
According to the tribe’s press release, the biological opinion, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, was intended to ensure that the bureau’s operations plan for the 225,000-acre Klamath Irrigation Project did not jeopardize the survival of federally listed fish and mammal species, such as coho salmon and southern resident killer whales.
However, the tribe contends, for several days in May the biological opinion had the river flows for salmon at or near drought minima, while at the same time Upper Klamath Lake was within half an inch of flooding.
These conditions occurred at the same time a serious fish disease outbreak was occurring in the river, with no water made available under the new biological opinion to remediate the outbreak.
“We had no other choice but to take the bureau to court, because the Klamath (biological opinion) is killing the river.” said Joseph L. James, chairman of the Yurok Tribe, in the press release.
“The Klamath salmon stocks are currently in an extremely fragile state, as the fish population is only just now starting to rebound from previous disease outbreaks. The Yurok people depend on the Klamath’s salmon runs for survival and we should not have to bear the brunt of the agency’s poor decision-making.
“During the course of the water year, the Yurok Tribe repeatedly sought modification of the plan to provide higher May-June flows, or barring that, at least the provision of an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water for emergency disease management flows.”
“Stronger protections are needed for Klamath salmon to safeguard against deadly parasites,” said Patti Goldman in the press release. Goldman is managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest regional office.
“Infection rates among the young salmon have been especially high recently and we cannot afford to allow this trend to continue.”
“Our folks in the commercial fishing industry also have no choice except to challenge this new biological opinion,” said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association.
“It does not provide enough water, or enough protection, to prevent the extinction of salmon in the Klamath River that our coastal communities depend upon for their livelihoods.”
The fishermen’s federation represents commercial salmon fishing families coastwide.
In March 2017 and again in April 2018, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick, in response to a different lawsuit filed by the tribe, Earthjustice and the fishermen’s federation, ordered the bureau to release more water to curtail another disease outbreak from C. shasta.
The tribe contends there is no provision for additional flows in the current biological opinion to address the escalation in infection rates that took place earlier this year.
One solution it recommends is reinstatement of the 2018 ruling, which would make more water available to prevent further damage to the coho and Chinook salmon populations.
Increased water releases during disease outbreaks reduce disease transmission to fish, speed outmigration away from infection zones, and generally improve water quality, according to the tribe’s press release.
Tribal experts said in the press release that up until now, high C. Shasta infection rates had occurred primarily in low-flow conditions on the upper Klamath River near Iron Gate Dam. For example, during the droughts in 2014 and 2015, observed infection rates among juvenile fish reached 84 and 91 percent.
Returning in 2016 and 2017, the salmon runs impacted by the disease were some of the worst on record. To protect the few fish that entered the river, the tribe canceled its commercial fishery for three years in a row and its subsistence fishery for the first time ever.