The once-legendary salmon streams of the Pacific Northwest have been battling steep declines in the celebrated fish for years, and nowhere has the challenge been tougher than on the Klamath River – with the fish struggling to survive the perils of dams, drought and water wars as the river flows from southern Oregon into California.
But in a stunning reversal that state wildlife officials are at a loss to explain fully, the river this fall is likely to see nearly 1.6 million chinook salmon, the big, meaty fish most prized by fishermen. The number is a sixfold increase over last year’s levels and several times larger than anything on the charts, which go back to 1996.
A strong fall chinook run is also forecast for the Sacramento River, which could see four times the number of fish compared with 2011, or a total of 819,400 fish.
The projections were announced this week in Newport, Ore., by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They came just a day after U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the federal government would not be able to meet a pledge to decide by March on whether to remove four hydropower dams on the Klamath; those dams have been blamed for a big share of the salmon’s troubles.
The news was welcomed by conservationists and the beleaguered fishing industry of Northern California and Oregon, which has suffered as salmon runs on river after river have been declared threatened or endangered. Environmentalists say the projections vindicate years of efforts, many of them in court, to maintain healthy water flows and better habitat for fish.
“Both of those numbers look pretty good,” Steve Williams, deputy administrator of Oregon Fish and Wildlife’s fish division, told the Los Angeles Times after presenting the figures Tuesday. “They obviously are evidence of good ocean survival conditions that have allowed those fish to thrive and become available this year, potentially some of them, for harvest.”
Conservationists have been working for years to improve fish habitat on the Klamath by fighting efforts to draw out water in the Upper Klamath Basin for irrigation. They are on the verge of getting federal approval to remove four hydropower dams that have been a major impediment to fish health, though Salazar’s announcement on Monday – which he blamed on Congress’ failure to act – will delay a final decision even further.
In 2002, diversion of water to agriculture cascaded into other problems that led to the die-off downstream of at least 34,000 fall chinook – probably twice that number – one of the biggest fish kills in Northwest history.
“There’s been too much water promised to too many people, and there’s been lots of fights,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle, who has joined the legal effort to keep more water in the river.
But tribes along the river have worked steadily to protect fish habitat. Other stakeholders have negotiated water usage issues and possible removal of dams. And last spring’s abundant rainfall guaranteed sufficient water for migrating juvenile fish even without court fights.
State fish managers and fishing industry advocates say good ocean conditions – abundant food and fewer predators – also must have played a role in so robust a predicted run.
“Nothing dramatic to my knowledge has changed in the Lower Klamath, but most likely since we’re seeing tremendous response from coho (salmon) as well along the Oregon Coast, that indicates to me that a lot of the improvement is due to survival in ocean conditions along Northern California and throughout Oregon,” Williams said.
Healthy stream flows in the Klamath “could easily be a factor,” he added.
David Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the last really large fall chinook return he could remember in the Klamath was around 1980.
“So yeah, it’s just really good news,” he said. “Some years ago when something like this happened, a friend of mine said, well, maybe it means we haven’t screwed it up too bad yet.”
The forecast is so large, he added, that the river may not be able to sustain that many fish without crashing the 2013 population. He will argue, not surprisingly, for a big catch quota when the Pacific Fishery Management Council structures this year’s fishing season in April – the reason all the fish forecasts were developed to begin with.
For once, everyone seems to agree, it’s good to be able to worry about having too many fish.
“These numbers are fantastic,” Boyles said. “We’re always fighting a picture that is environmental protection versus jobs. But that is a fake, a veneer put on a much bigger problem, which is how do you have the resources to have the salmon and the jobs and the economic activity in places where we all want to live?”