Springers on the Brink

On July 21st, EPIC staff participated in the Salmon River Restoration Council’s 27th Annual Cooperative Spring Chinook and Summer Steelhead Census Dive on the Salmon River. Together, 80 trained divers swam headfirst through the Salmon River and its tributaries to count every spring Chinook “springer” and summer steelhead. However, with the recent high temperatures and poor water quality of the Klamath River that the fish have to swim through to get to their spawning ground, the outcome was grim.

This year, we counted only 95 total spring Chinook salmon and 311 summer steelhead, which for the third year in a row is the second lowest count on record since the dives began in 1990. Along the 2 mile reach we surveyed; we only saw a handful of springers huddled at the mouth of a tributary that provided a cold water refugia for the struggling fish trying to escape the warm water temperatures. We also saw many dead juveniles, adult suckerfish, and the remains of a spring Chinook carcass.

Most of the fish counted were in the Mainstem Salmon River, which is lower than their ideal spawning grounds. Karuna Greenberg, Restoration Director at SRRC stated that “over half of the spring Chinook counted were in the Mainstem Salmon River, far below ideal spring Chinook spawning grounds, and were reported to be fresh. This means that these fish are likely heterozygotes (spring and fall Chinook crosses who have an intermediate run timing), indicating that our spring Chinook have less and less exclusive habitat in the Salmon River, which they need to persist into the future as a population. Additionally, if these fish spawn in the lower reaches of the Salmon River, it is pretty much guaranteed that the much larger run of fall Chinook salmon will spawn over top of their redds, making it that much less likely that their offspring will survive.”

The majority of spring Chinook habitat was lost early in the 20th century when the Klamath Dams were constructed. Prior to the dams, springers were the Klamath’s most prolific run of fish. The dams not only block fish passage to the upper Klamath Basin that has cold snowmelt and prime springer spawning grounds, but they also degrade the water that passes through them to the extent that the spring run hatchery at the lowest dam, a required mitigation measure to compensate for dam construction, failed in the 1970’s because of poor water quality.

Springers are incredibly important right now because they are the fish who evolved to live in the cold snowmelt of the Upper Klamath Basin and if we want to see salmon return to historical spawning grounds after the dams come out, we need to keep this struggling population of springers alive. Since desperate times call for desperate measures, a serious topic of discussion among fish counters was to return exclusive habitat to spring Chinook through selective passage (such as a fish weir) at historical barrier sites (that were modified by people in the 1980’s) to keep fall Chinook out of the spring chinook spawning grounds in an effort to increase productivity of spring Chinook.

Earlier this year spring Chinook were listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act providing a glimmer of hope for springers. And while the dams are on track to be removed in the next couple of years, scientists, fishermen and fish advocates are concerned that the protections won’t come fast enough. With springers on the brink of extinction, we hope that community members and agencies will be able to work together to find a real and immediate solution to ensure that spring Chinook salmon will survive long enough to once again thrive in their historic spawning grounds.