After a recent population assessment of chinook salmon and steelhead found 54 adult and hundreds of juvenile fish dead in the Salmon River and others were found dead in the Klamath River, researchers and tribes are concerned what the future will hold for the anadromous fish should the effects of the drought persist.
"We're all on alert," California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Sara Borok said. "We don't to want lose this year's spring run. There's not a whole lot we can do other than have more rain dances."
The 54 dead adults and over 300 dead juveniles found throughout the 90 miles of examined water were mainly comprised of chinook salmon, a spring-run fish that settles in the cooler waters during the spring and summer and spawn during the late fall. Normally, the adult salmon die after their spawning period in October and November, but several are dying early due to the low, warm water conditions, according to Borok.
"This year, because it was low because of the low snow pack, it's been really warm upriver" she said. "At about 22 (degrees) Celsius or about 72 degrees Fahrenheit is when they stop migrating. Below that, they keep moving. They like cooler waters like tributary mouths or a spring or at the bottom of deep pools."
The two-day assessment that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday and is one of the biweekly assessments of the Klamath Basin by the Klamath Basin Monitoring Program, which is comprised of several volunteers from tribes, environmental organizations, state agencies and local citizens concerned about the rivers. Representatives of a wide range of organizations interested in the river are holding weekly meetings and posters have been distributed asking people to report when they see an unusually high number of dead fish — more than 55 in a mile of river.
Karuk Tribe Klamath Coordinator Craig Tucker said Salmon isn't the only river impacted.
"It's pretty rare to see fish die this early in the year," Tucker said. "We've been seeing it for a few weeks. Both in the Salmon and the main stem Klamath."
With no dams and the water supply coming majority from the wilderness flows, Tucker said the Salmon River is a unique watershed in the Klamath Basin.
"It's one of the very few remaining places that spring chinook salmon can get to," he said. "Because the dams, they are very limited in their options in the Klamath, so the Salmon (River) is one of the few places they can go. This year, the drought is just having a horrific toll on these fish. They are really struggling to find those cold water refuges they need to survive."
The Salmon River Restoration Council website states that the water temperatures in the tributary have risen up to 79 degrees Fahrenheit, which Tucker says makes them more susceptible to gill rot disease.
"In the warm temperatures, the fish gets stressed out which compromises their immune system and makes them much more prone to contract the disease," Tucker said.
In 2001, a drought forced water shutoffs in a federal irrigation project straddling the Oregon-California border to assure enough water flowed down the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon. But in 2002, the Bush administration ordered irrigation to resume, resulting in low warm water in the Klamath River. When a record run of 181,000 chinook returned in September, an estimated 60,000 died from gill rot disease that spread as fish crowded into low and warm pools while waiting for higher water to move upstream to spawn.
Only about 60,000 salmon are predicted for this year's run.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.