U.S. official pledges study of fish die-off

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at ipns.com
Thu Oct 3 23:32:08 EST 2002

>From The Oregonian, Oct. 3, 2002, p D1

U.S. official pledges study of fish die-off
The director of a federal agency says it's too early to say whether
water diversions are to blame

	A top Bush administration official Wednesday promised a "rigorous
scientific analysis" of the massive salmon die-off that struck the
Klamath River last week but declined to link it to federally-mandated
diversions of water to farms in Oregon and California.
	Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told
reporters the underlying cause of the die-off - officially set
Wednesday at 20,000 to 30,000 adult migrating salmon - remains
unclear. He said it's premature to blame the kill on the low river
levels that resulted from the diversions.
	Williams added, "That's a hypothesis that needs to be tested."
	He was clear in saying scientists have ruled out contamination, such
as a chemical spill, as a cause.
	Williams pledged a comprehensive study o f the kill shortly after a
California congressman, fishing groups and tribes that depend on the
fish heaped dead Klamath salmon in front of the Interior Department
building in Washington, D.C. They blame the die-off on the
administration policy that shifts water away from fish to supply
Klamath Basin farmers with irrigation.
	"This is not an act of nature," said Susan Masten, chairwoman of the
Yurok Tribe, as flies swarmed the decaying fish in 80-degree heat.
"This is a result of the government's bad water-management policy."
	The Fish and Wildlife Service's confirmation of the scale of the
kill, which occurred in the river's lower reaches in Northern
California, makes it one of the largest known. Of the dead, about 95
percent were adult chinook heading upriver to spawn, with the rest
steelhead, Klamath small-scale sucker, speckled dace, green sturgeon,
sculpin and coho salmon.
	Coho are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, with
several thousand left in the river. Williams did not know how many
coho had died, but tribal biologists surveying the river said they
counted almost 200.
	Most of the salmon died of suffocation due to infections caused by
bacteria and parasites, destroying their gills, he said. Biologists
think the infections spread rapidly among fish that were crowded into
the mouth of the low, warm Klamath River while they waited for cool
water to signal their move upstream.
	The river also is low because much of the water in main tributaries
such as the Trinity River is diverted to huge farms in California's
Central Valley.
	Interior Secretary Gale Norton last week ordered the release of extra
water from the Klamath Project on the Oregon-California line in hopes
of dispersing salmon in the river. The "pulse" of water arrived in the
fish kill zone Monday, and officials said its immediate impacts were
	California biologists inserted radio transmitters in 10 salmon to
track their response to the new water.
	The die-off slowed a few days before the pulse arrived, and Williams
said that might mean factors other than low water were at work.
	Other biologists saw it differently.
	"We've got so many fish, and if they're dead, you can't have more
fish dying," said Dave Hillemeier, fisheries program manager for the
Yurok Tribe.
	Less water than this year's has flowed down the Klamath in three of
the past 11 years - 1991, 1992 and 1994 - without any noticeable fish
kill, Williams said. But Hillemeier said that may be because the
chinook run in those years was far smaller, in one case less than
20,000 fish compared with the more than 100,000 expected this year.
	That would have left the river less crowded, giving disease less
opportunity to spread, he said.
	Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Norton, said the
administration has confidence in its strategy for distributing Klamath
River water. But Williams said wildlife agencies could step in with
new demands for fish if it turns out the die-off has harmed protected
	Federal agencies cut off water to Klamath farmers last summer,
reserving the water for fish instead. A panel of scientists later said
the cutoff was unjustified, and Bush officials used that finding to
restore water to farmers this year.
	Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association said Klamath
Project farmers fear the die-off will lead to new restrictions on the
irrigation water they rallied to regain.
	"Somehow, we've got to get everyone to the table, but something like
this really sets us back," he said. "It's a very complicated problem,
and you can't point to one isolated factor like the project for

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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