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No evidence found that Klamath floods affected Chinook migration, tribe says

Deadfish2.jpg
Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources
Dead suckers on the edge of the Klamath River in early August. A debris slide in the McKinney Fire burn zone resulted in a large fish kill.

Early this month, flooding from the McKinney Fire burn zone filled the Klamath River with sediment, killing tens of thousands of fish. Despite losses of some fish species, it appears adult Chinook salmon were relatively unaffected.

Just 290 spring Chinook migrated up the Klamath River this year. While significantly below the longterm average, it was the highest number since 2016, and a sign the population is somewhat bouncing back after only 95 migrated upriver in 2021.

Shortly after those numbers were finalized, torrential rains in the McKinney Fire area washed a slurry of ash, mud and debris into the river. Dissolved oxygen in the water dropped to zero, and tens of thousands of fish in a 50-mile section of the river were killed.

Many were worried about the spring Chinook population, which are listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. But, representatives of the Karuk Tribe say it appears the species dodged a bullet. When debris flowed into the Klamath River, adult Chinook had already completed their migration to tributaries nearby.

“There were adult spring Chinook that had taken refuge in those side tributaries and had gotten out of the mudflow,” says Karuna Greenberg, restoration director of the Salmon River Restoration Council. The Salmon River feeds into the Klamath. She says they haven’t seen many dead Chinook in the area of the incident.

While the salmon run was relatively unscathed, Toz Soto, fisheries program manager for the Karuk Tribe, says other species that did succumb to the low oxygen levels are just as culturally and ecologically important to the tribe as the Chinook.

“I saw a lot of people’s reaction to the fish kill was like ‘Oh well, it’s not salmon, it’s mostly suckers and this and that,’ but all species are important," Soto says. "When you see native species like sucker or lamprey it’s just as heartbreaking.”

Soto says the Chinook population is so vulnerable that if a similar disaster were to take place a month from now, it could decimate the local fall run while they’re migrating upriver.

Noah is a broadcast journalist and podcast producer who was born and raised in Salem, Oregon. He came to Jefferson Public Radio through the Charles Snowden Program of Excellence after graduating with a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon. In his spare time, Noah enjoys backpacking, scuba diving and writing music.