Yurok Tribe, commercial fishing group file lawsuit against federal agencies over high salmon disease rates

(Photo: Yurok Tribe)

New Biological Opinion contributes to serious disease outbreak on the Klamath River

News Release

Yurok Tribe

This afternoon, the Yurok Tribe and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service in response to low flows and high salmon disease rates under the federal agency’s new management plan for the Klamath River. The groups are represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

The recently implemented Klamath Biological Opinion (BiOp) created environmental conditions that worsened an outbreak of the lethal pathogenCeratonova shasta (C. shasta), infecting an observed majority of this year’s juvenile salmon. The Biological Opinion, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is intended to ensure that the Bureau’s operations plan for the 225,000-acre Klamath Irrigation Project does not jeopardize the survival of federally listed fish and mammal species, such as coho salmon and southern resident killer whales. However, for several days in May, the Biological Opinion had the river flows for salmon at or near drought minima at the same time Upper Klamath Lake was within one half of an inch of flooding. These conditions occurred at the same time a serious fish disease outbreak was occurring in the river, but with no water made available under the new Klamath Biological Opinion to remediate the outbreak.

“We had no other choice but to take the Bureau to court because the Klamath BiOp is killing the river.” said Joseph L. James, the Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “The Klamath salmon stocks are currently in an extremely fragile state as the fish population is only just now starting to rebound from previous disease outbreaks. The Yurok people depend on the Klamath’s salmon runs for survival and we should not have to bear the brunt of the agency’s poor decision-making. During the course of the water year, the Yurok Tribe repeatedly sought modification of the Plan to provide higher May-June flows, or barring that, at least the provision of an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water for emergency disease management flows.”

“Stronger protections are needed for Klamath salmon to safeguard against deadly parasites,” said Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest regional office. “Infection rates among the young salmon have been especially high recently and we cannot afford to allow this trend to continue.”

“Our folks in the commercial fishing industry also have no choice except to challenge this new Biological Opinion. It does not provide enough water, or enough protection, to prevent the extinction of salmon in the Klamath River that our coastal communities depend upon for their livelihoods,” said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents commercial salmon fishing families coastwide. “In short, the new Klamath Biological Opinion is based on flawed science, unproven models and worst of all it jettisons key disease prevention flows the Courts have already determined are necessary. This is unacceptable.”

In March 2017 and again in April 2018, United States District Court Judge William H. Orrick, in response to a different lawsuit filed by the Tribe, Earthjustice and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, ordered the Bureau to release more water to curtail another disease outbreak from C. shasta. There is no provision for additional flows in the current Klamath Biological Opinion to address the escalation in infection rates that took place earlier this year. One solution would be the reinstatement of the 2018 ruling, which would make more water available to prevent further damage to the coho and Chinook salmon populations. Increased water releases during disease outbreaks reduce disease transmission to fish, speed outmigration away from infection zones, and generally improve water quality.

Despite the snowpack being 126 percent of the long-term average, under the new Klamath Biological Opinion the Bureau released drought-level flows at Iron Gate Dam even as Upper Klamath Lake was full. The stretch of the Klamath River immediately below Iron Gate Dam is a place researchers have identified as having elevated infection rates. Compounding the problem are high daily water temperatures below Iron Gate which put additional stress on infected fish.

Up until now, high C. Shasta infection rates had mostly occurred in low flow conditions on the upper Klamath River near Iron Gate Dam. For example, during the droughts in 2014 and 2015, observed infection rates among juvenile fish reached 84 and 91 percent. Returning in 2016 and 2017, the salmon runs impacted by the disease were some of the worst on record. To protect the few fish that entered the river, the Tribe canceled its commercial fishery for three years in a row and its subsistence fishery for the first time ever, which caused a tremendous hardship for the Yurok people. The commercial ocean salmon fisheries suffered similar widespread closures, and a federal fishery disaster declaration. It is all but certain that Klamath’s fish runs will suffer if this new Klamath Biological Opinion’s plan continues to be implemented.

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