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Klamath River Fish Stocks Suffer Another Setback

A year after a severe, drought-related die-off of salmon and steelhead, about 70,000 offspring of the survivors die in a hatchery malfunction.

September 23, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — This week marks a dark anniversary on the Klamath River. A year ago, more than 33,000 fish -- mostly adult Chinook salmon and steelhead trout making their way home to spawn -- succumbed to disease in the drought-racked river in California's far north. State biologists called it the biggest fish die-off in the nation's history.

Last week, there was another die-off. This one involved nearly 70,000 juvenile fish, the offspring of last year's survivors.

A glitch during maintenance operations at a century-old hydroelectric plant that funnels river water to a Siskiyou County fish hatchery left a rearing pond dry Friday morning, killing 40,000 tiny Chinook salmon and 28,000 yearling steelhead.

The operator of the powerhouse, PacifiCorp, is investigating why water was unexpectedly shut off to the Fall Creek Hatchery for about 40 minutes. So far, the firm doesn't have an answer, said Jon Coney, a spokesman for the Portland, Ore.-based company.

"We want to make sure this doesn't happen again," Coney said. "Everyone feels terribly about this, though it shouldn't affect the numbers too badly."

California Fish and Game officials, who run the Klamath River hatchery and another fish-rearing facility downstream at the base of Iron Gate Dam, said the accident was a blow after last year's die-off reduced the number of returning adults.

"Its significance isn't that great in terms of numbers," said Gary Stacey, Northern California fisheries program manager. "But these were the progeny of salmon and steelhead that managed to make it back last year, despite the fish kill.

"We were trying to get the maximum production from those returning fish. It's not a good deal from the standpoint of meeting our objectives."

Stacey said most of the fish that died Friday were yearlings -- bigger, hardier and with a better chance of survival in the wild than younger fish.

Yearlings are released when they are about 6 inches long. Studies have determined that they outlast smaller returnees -- 2-inch fish known as smolts -- by better than 4 to 1, Stacey said.

The Chinook were spawned in October 2002 and were to be released next month.

The steelhead were younger and smaller, with a spring release date.

Stacey said the hatchery works in tandem with the Iron Gate facility to produce about 5 million fish a year, more than 1 million of them yearlings.

Each year, returning adults lay their eggs at the Iron Gate hatchery. When the juveniles emerge, many are shipped by truck to the Fall Creek Hatchery, which provides extra tank space as they grow.

When they reach the age to be released, they are trucked back to the Iron Gate hatchery to return to the river.

"We'll get through this," Stacey said. "But we won't see the production we had hoped for."

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