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Juvenile fish kill, massive disease outbreak puts Klamath salmon on path to extinction

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The Yurok Tribe said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Wednesday it would not release water to prevent a catastrophic juvenile fish kill on the Klamath River.

The tribe said Thursday even though historic drought is the primary cause of the lack of water, previous BOR water allocation decision led to the widespread fish kill.

The Yurok said it could have been prevented with a flow increase.

“Right now, the Klamath River is full of dead and dying fish on the Yurok Reservation,” Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman, said. “This disease will kill most of the baby salmon in the Klamath, which will impact fish runs for many years to come. For salmon people, a juvenile fish kill is an absolute worst-case scenario.”

The Tribe said every year its fisheries department monitors the Klamath River for the deadly pathogen Ceratonova shasta. The Yurok said the monitoring crew uses a device called a rotary screw trap to collect live fish for the annual disease assessment.

During the last two weeks, the Yurok said more than 70 percent of the juvenile Chinook salmon in the trap were dead. The tribe said this is extremely abnormal.

According to the Yurok, available scientific information leads to the conclusion that these fish died from C. shasta. The tribe said large numbers of dead fish were also encountered at upriver monitoring sites.
On May 4, the most recent date for which data is available, the Yurok said 97% of the juvenile salmon captured between the Shasta River and Scott River stretch of the Klamath were infected with C. Shasta and will be dead within days.

“We are watching a massive fish kill unfold in real-time,” said Yurok Fisheries Department Director Barry McCovey Jr, a Yurok citizen who has studied fish disease on the Klamath for more than two decades. “The juvenile fish kill will limit salmon production for many years to come. It will also negatively impact many other native species, ranging from orcas to osprey, because salmon play such an essential role in the overall ecosystem.”

Since time immemorial, the Yurok said the tribe's lifeway has revolved around the Klamath River salmon runs.

"This invaluable species is integral to the Tribe’s traditions and ceremonies," the Yurok said in a press release. "Prior to the fisheries collapse, salmon were an important source of sustenance for thousands of Yurok citizens."

According to tribal officials, during the last five years, the Klamath fish runs have been some of the lowest on record and the tribe has not been able to harvest enough fish to meet its subsistence or ceremonial needs, let alone implement a commercial catch. The Yurok said this year’s adult salmon forecast is also very low and the Tribe cancelled its commercial fishery for a fifth time to protect struggling fish stocks.

The Yurok said on the Reservation, where the median income is $11,000, many tribal families rely on the fishery to pay basic bills.

Tribal officials said other communities throughout the Klamath Basin are facing serious hardships as a result of the drought.

"Farm communities and our upstream neighbors, the Klamath Tribes, are also feeling the pinch this year," the tribe said.

In addition to the hardship brought by low flows on the mainstem Klamath, the Yurok said the fish in the Shasta and Scott Rivers are also facing dire conditions and loss of year class. In the Scott River, unless groundwater extraction is moderated, tribal officials said it is a virtual certainty that Chinook and Coho salmon will not be able to reach their spawning grounds due to insufficient flows for migration.

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“What Klamath Basin communities are facing right now is the definition of a disaster. It is also the new normal. Substantial water shortages are a long-predicted symptom of climate change. There is an urgent need for an equitable federal disaster relief bill that addresses the immediate needs of our communities and establishes a foundation from which to build a more resilient ecology and economy in the Klamath Basin. We owe it to future generations to never let another juvenile fish kill like this happen again. We need to act now before it is too late for the Klamath salmon,” Vice Chair Frankie Myers concluded.

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