Fishing boats dot the water during the spring 2011 chinook salmon run on… (Don Ryan, Associated Press )
Reporting from Seattle —
The once-legendary salmon streams of the Pacific Northwest have been battling steep declines in the celebrated fish for years, and nowhere has the challenge been tougher than on the Klamath River, with salmon struggling to survive the perils of dams, drought and water wars on the river that flows from southern Oregon into California.
But in a stunning reversal that state wildlife officials are at a loss to fully explain, nearly 1.6 million chinook salmon, the big, meaty fish most prized by fishermen, are expected to try to make their way into and up the river to spawn this fall. The number represents a sixfold increase over last year's levels and is several times larger than anything on the charts, which go back to 1996.
A strong fall chinook run is also forecast for the Sacramento River, which could see four times the number seen in 2011, or a total of 819,400 fish.
The figures were announced this week in Newport, Ore., by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They came just a day after U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the federal government would not be able to meet a pledge to decide by March on whether to remove four hydropower dams on the Klamath, which have been blamed for a big share of the salmon's troubles.
The projections were welcomed by conservationists and the beleaguered fishing industries in Northern California and Oregon, which have suffered as salmon runs on river after river have been declared threatened or endangered. Environmentalists say the forecasts vindicate years of efforts, many of them in court, to maintain healthy water flows and better habitat for fish.
"Both of those numbers look pretty good," Steve Williams, deputy administrator of Oregon Fish and Wildlife's fish division, told The Times after presenting the figures Tuesday. "They obviously are evidence of good ocean survival conditions that have allowed those fish to thrive and become available this year, potentially some of them, for harvest."
Conservationists have been working for years to improve fish habitat on the Klamath by fighting efforts to draw out water in the Upper Klamath Basin for irrigation. They appear on the verge of getting federal approval to remove the four hydropower dams, though Salazar's announcement Monday — which he blamed on Congress' failure to act — will delay the decision.
In 2002, diversion of water to agriculture cascaded into other problems that led to the die-off downstream of at least 34,000— and perhaps twice that number — fall chinook, one of the biggest fish kills in history in the Pacific Northwest.
"There's been too much water promised to too many people, and there's been lots of fights," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle, who has joined the legal effort to keep more water in the Klamath.
Native American tribes along the river have worked steadily to protect fish habitat. Other stakeholders have negotiated water usage issues and possible removal of dams. And last spring's abundant rainfall guaranteed sufficient water for migrating juvenile fish even without court fights.
State fisheries managers and fishing industry advocates say favorable ocean conditions — abundant food and fewer predators — also must have played a role in so robust a predicted run.
"Nothing dramatic to my knowledge has changed in the Lower Klamath, but most likely since we're seeing tremendous response from coho [salmon] as well along the Oregon coast, that indicates to me that a lot of the improvement is due to survival in ocean conditions along Northern California and throughout Oregon," Williams said.
Healthy stream flows in the Klamath "could easily be a factor," he added.
David Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., said the last really large fall chinook return he could remember in the Klamath was in about 1980.
"So yeah, it's just really good news," he said. "Some years ago when something like this happened, a friend of mine said, well, maybe it means we haven't screwed it up too bad yet."
The forecast is so large, he added, the river may not be able to sustain that many fish without crashing the 2013 population. He will argue, not surprisingly, for a big catch quota when the Pacific Fishery Management Council structures this year's fishing season in April — the reason all the fish forecasts were developed to begin with.
For once, everyone seems to agree: It's good to be able to worry about having too many fish.
"These numbers are fantastic," Boyles said. "We're always fighting a picture that is environmental protection versus jobs. But that is a fake, a veneer put on a much bigger problem, which is how do you have the resources to have the salmon and the jobs and the economic activity in places where we all want to live?"