Last Friday, reports began coming in that a large-scale fish kill is occurring on the Klamath River and its tributaries. The fish kill is the result of a storm event on Wednesday, August 3rd, that washed sediment and debris off of mountain sides in the McKinney Fire area into the Humbug Creek and McKinney Creek waterways. The sediment then wiped out dissolved oxygen levels in the rivers causing a massive fish die-off. Sediment also inundated the Salmon River from the 2021 River Complex fire footprint. Currently, the Klamath and Salmon Rivers are running completely brown, and the sediment slug reached the mouth of the Klamath on Monday.
Thousands of fish were observed near Happy Camp washing up along the banks of the Klamath just below tributary areas where eddies circulate water and debris collects. Dead and dying fish of all species were piled up along the banks, including salmonids, sucker fish and others. There are also reports that some dead fish have been located along the banks of the Salmon River.
Many of the areas of concern have also had historic logging and upslope management activities that could be contributing to the unstable slopes and debris runoff. We have known for decades that logging negatively impacts slope stability and makes events like these more likely. Currently, the full extent of the impacts are unknown due to closures issued by the Forest Service which prevent investigations of the full scope of what is occuring.. The Karuk Tribe’s fisheries department has requested access from the Forest Service, but after several days of the river levels changing, the dead fish are already beginning to wash away and disburse down the river.
Prior to this catastrophic event, Klamath River fisheries were already struggling due to poor water quality, high temperatures, low flows and the habitat blocking dams along the Klamath River that are slated for removal in 2023. Unfortunately, it is believed that any salmon that were within 20 miles of the sediment source were wiped out.
To get an understanding of what species may have been affected, fall run Chinook typically enter the Klamath in August and September and begin spawning in October and November, and spring Chinook enter the river from April to June and spawn in September and October. Just a few weeks ago, the spring Chinook and summer steelhead population survey was conducted on the Salmon River and only 290 spring Chinook and 387 summer steelhead were counted. Although there were more Spring Chinook observed this year than the last five years, this run was still below average compared to the 30-year data set. Had the spring Chinook not already been extirpated by the dams where most fish were recently observed dead and dying, we would have seen more adult salmon mortalities, but what few were left in those areas were not spared. Additionally, many of the area's juvenile salmonids, including juvenile endangered coho salmon, were certainly wiped out by this recent “perfect storm” of cumulative anthropogenic impacts that literally turned entire rivers into torrents of mud.
As our climate changes we're facing a future with an increased likelihood of catastrophic weather events like those seen last week on the Klamath. In 2003 the National Research Council stated that the Klamath salmon were likely to be one of the west coast’s most resilient runs in the face of climate change. Now, with these types of events becoming more frequent, management policies in the Klamath Basin need to favor healthy fisheries if we're hoping to preserve the Klamath’s salmon runs.
Kenneth Brinks inspects juvenile fish mortality at the Mouth of Seiad Creek.
Photo by Stormi Staats, Karuk Fisheries.
Dead fish and debris at the mouth of Seiad Creek 8/6/22 at 11:27am. Photo by Stormi Staats, Karuk Fisheries.
Same Location as photo above. Photo taken on 8/6/22 at 3:48 p.m. In just 4 hours many of the dead fish had washed away from the debris pile.
Dead Juvenile trout. Photo by Amber Jamieson.
Confluence of the Salmon River (left) and Klamath River (right) running brown with sediment following storm event.
Dead fish in the mouth of Seiad Creek. Photo by Amber Jamieson.