Friday, November 30, 2007

Disappointing Fall Chinook Spawner Run; Coho in trouble too!

Escapement is the term used to describe those salmon which are able to avoid capture by ocean commercial and sport fishers, tribal fishers and in-river sport fishers. For a fishery to be sustainable, spawner escapement must be large enough to produce the fish which will be caught three and four years from now. This year Klamath River Fall Chinook escapement appears to once again be insufficient to produce good future harvests and a sustainable fishery.

Yesterday I ran into one of the biologists who monitor the Chinook and Coho salmon runs in the Klamath River and its main salmon producing tributaries – the Scott, Shasta and Salmon Rivers. I asked him about this year’s spawning runs. Bottom line: the news is both bad and good but mostly bad.

This year the Fall Chinook run in the Klamath River was late. It was also a year when the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) - which sets Chinook harvest rates based on long-term data, predictive models and politics – allocated a larger number of salmon for harvest than we have seen in recent years. This allowed the Yurok Tribe – which has rights to about 40% of the allowable harvest – to schedule the first commercial fishing season in nearly a decade. Cal Fish & Game provided a generous allocation to in-river sport fishers. Ocean sport and commercial fishers also enjoyed solid allocations.

Relatively generous harvest allocations made for lots of happy faces at the mouth of the Klamath this fall. It was great to see Yurok and sport fishers working together at the River’s mouth to make sure everyone had an opportunity. Among the Yurok fishers were several teenagers who fished commercially to finance their college educations. Below are two photos from the height of the harvest at the Mouth. The first shows a sport fishing couple who had caught their daily quota; the second shows tribal fishers at work:

As the Chinook moved up river, however, it became clear that this years spawning run will likely not meet the 35,000 “escapement floor” established by the PFMC. This is not new! With seats for commercial fishermen, tribal interests and state wildlife agencies that favor high sport allocations, the PFMC has often overallocated West Coast Chinook salmon; as a result, the Klamath spawner “floor” is regularly not met. Even when achieved, 35,000 spawners will not produce the maximum number of harvestable salmon. To maximize the Klamath Fall Chinook run the PFMC would have to manage for 41,000 Wild Fall Chinook to escape capture and spawn. (A more complete explanation of Klamath Harvest Allocation by legendary tribal fisheries biologist Ronnie Pierce is available from the Yreka Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service: 1829 South Oregon Street, Yreka, California 96097, Phone (530) 842-5763, Fax (530) 842-4517

In one way the lateness of the Fall Chinook run was a blessing. Flows in the Scott and Shasta Rivers this fall have been so low that a normally timed Chinook run would have resulted in spawners not being able to access most of the habitat in these rivers which produce the bulk of the Klamath’s Fall Chinook run. In the Scott a solid rainstorm resulted in the Chinook being able to pass low flow barriers in the Scott Canyon. It is still unclear, however, how many of these Scott River Fall Chinook spawners were able to make it into major spawning creeks. Spawning survey reports should be available by January and will provide a more complete picture. Scott flows as measured at the USGS flow gage have decreased steadily sine the 1970s when groundwater pumping for irrigation began to increase dramatically.

The situation in the Shasta River appears to be even worse. As a result of flaws in the 1928 Shasta River Water Rights Adjudication, landowners along the Shasta River can and do pump as much water as they desire directly from the river. This year the combination of drought and unlimited pumping has resulted in anemic river flows; Fall Chinook were not able to access most prime spawning grounds.

Coho spawners also appear to be in trouble again this year. Unless the latest storms translates into increased stream flow, it appears that Scott River Coho will only be able to access one of the prime spawning creeks in the Scott Valley. Because of its low gradient, side channels, numerous tributaries and wetlands, the Scott River Valley is believed to have once been the stronghold of Coho in the Klamath River Basin. But the wetlands were drained long ago and have not been restored. Now the Scott River produces one significant run of Coho (1,000 or so spawners) about every three years. This is the year that the one-in-three "good" run (called a "cohort" by fish biologists) was expected. If this cohort fails to spawn adequately, Coho could become even more scarce than they are now in the Klamath River Basin.

The State of California is responsible for protecting Scott and Shasta River salmon spawning runs and the Fish & Game Code provides the tools to do the job. Unfortunately, although Governor Schwarzenegger has jumped on the dam removal bandwagon, so far he has not directed those who work for him to help salmon in the Shasta and Scott Rivers. (for more on Cal Fish & Game's failure to protect salmon in the the Shasta and Scott see:

Those who want to encourage Governor Schwarzenegger to step up on the Shasta and Scott can contact the governor’s chief adviser on Klamath River issues: Drew Bohan, Deputy Director of the California Resources Agency. Mr. bowen can be reached at 916- 651-8738 or by e-mail:


The photo below is of the Scott River at Serpa Lane near Fort Jones. It was taken this July. In addition to low flow, you can see the tracks of cattle in the bed of the stream. Scott River farmers have received funding to exclude livestock from the Scott River. However, it is still very common there to see livestock or their tracks in the bed of the river as well as in tributary streams. The riparian vegetation visible in this picture is the result of a government funded bank stabilization project.

No comments: