“The Klamath River Basin and the salmon it supports are a global treasure,” said Scott Greacen, executive director of EPIC. “So far, federal agencies have managed spring-run chinook in the Klamath by ignoring them. Plans for the restoration of the Klamath need to put spring chinook recovery front and center.”
The Klamath River Basin provides the lifeblood for a complex and diverse region, stretching from the mountains of Southwest Oregon to the coast of Northwest California. Tremendous diversity of life depends on the health of the Klamath River and its tributaries, including Tribal river communities, fish and wildlife, farmers and recreational economies. Massive hydro projects like dams and water diversions have dramatically impacted the health of the Basin and its residents.
The petition seeks protection first and foremost for spring-run chinook, now near extinction in its last remaining stronghold. Biologists now count fewer than 300 – 3,000 wild-spawning spring chinook each year. These fish are marvels of evolution, living most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean only to return to the river in the spring with enough fat reserves to survive without eating until early fall when it’s time for them to spawn. They have long been prized as one of the best-tasting salmon species and historically the most economically important Klamath fish.
The Klamath Basin was once the third-largest producer of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast, but now produces fewer and fewer wild fish as a result of dams, habitat degradation and other factors. Overall, at least 300 miles of spawning habitat in the Klamath Basin have been made inaccessible by dams. Because of declines in the overall numbers of returning wild chinook, the petition also asks the Fisheries Service to consider protecting wild fall-run chinook.
Recent river management has exacerbated the chinook’s plight. In the fall of 2002, Klamath River chinook suffered one of the worst fish kills in Northwest history when as many as 70,000 adult salmon died before spawning. Excessive water withdrawals, primarily from the federally run Klamath Irrigation Project, resulted in low flows and warm water temperatures that allowed disease to develop and spread quickly. Continued low flows and warm temperatures are key drivers of an ongoing disease crisis in the river that has sharply reduced survival of juvenile wild fish on their way to the ocean.