Merkley facilitates follow-up summit on sucker recovery

Federal agency representatives on Friday night kept the conversation going with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley about continued efforts to save two Klamath Basin sucker species from extinction.

Merkley, an outspoken advocate of the sucker fish, held a similar summit regarding the sucker species in November 2018. The gathering prompted more research and new ways of trying to solve the plight of the endangered sucker, what many Friday called a “mystery;” and one currently without a known solution.

Merkley has delivered $23.5 million to the Basin since 2013 to find a way toward a solution. He recently secured $11 million for sucker recovery efforts, including $5.1 million for the Klamath River.

Joining him around the table on Friday evening following his town hall were representatives of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon Renewable Energy Center, and more to discuss ongoing efforts in sucker recovery.

“So many capable organizations and scientists are working on the problem and sharing their information,” Merkley said following the summit.

Two issues

“The two big issues have been, are there predators that are the driving force or is it water quality?” Merkley said. “It seems to be a pretty big consensus that it’s water quality. This is not an easy thing to change and the exact mechanisms by which the water quality is affecting the young fish, killing the young fish, still a bit of a mystery.”

Toxin-producing algae blooms are to blame, he said.

“When they die, they strip oxygen from the water but it isn’t quite clear exactly what toxin or oxygen combination is causing this,” Merkley said.

“It’s just a year and a half ago I was being told the issue was fathead minnows eating the small suckers, and it turns out that … that’s not absolutely the driving impact at all,” he added.

“We have a very short number of years left in which to tackle this challenge in terms of harvesting small fish from the natural spawning cycle. … The clock is ticking,” he added.

Algae concerns

Merkley said the issues related to algae blooms are not limited to the Klamath Basin but across all bodies of water.

“Across the country, we are having a massive problem with algae,” Merkley said. “And it’s an ocean problem, it’s a lake problem, it’s a stream problem. And it’s not going away. So everything that we learn here about this lake is going to be valuable for other lakes in Oregon, and for other water bodies across the country.

“It’s warmer water, combined with more phosphorous creates ideal conditions for a huge variety of algae that produce different toxins and problems,” he added.

“It affects just our ability as humans to enjoy our natural environment and then, of course it can have other impacts downstream.”

What sets Upper Klamath Lake apart in terms of algae bloom effects is the impact to farmers and ranchers, who also depend on the water for agricultural production.

Tied together

“Here in the Basin, water is shared between the lake, the streams, and irrigation for ranchers, irrigation for farmers … water ties us all together in terms of both the natural ecosystem and the success of our agriculture. So when we have a challenge like the water quality in the lake, it can affect water ability for other functions and so we’re all wrestling with this together.

“The algae blooms are driving the problem but the exact mechanisms by which they’re killing the fish are not nailed down,” he added. “The phosphorous levels and the warmth of the water are causing the blooms, are in various ways killing the fish, but the exact mechanisms are still under investigation.

“Already, there’s plans next summer to experiment more,” he added, referring to Oregon Tech’s project to put aeration rafts on Upper Klamath Lake, with bubbles that create more distribution of oxygen throughout the water column, from the bottom of the lake to the top of the lake.

Pens of young suckers will also be monitored differently. “That will protect them from lampreys but will also be able to monitor more carefully the conditions of the pen to try to understand more about the exact mechanisms,” Merkley added.

What’s next in the effort to improve sucker recovery?

“There’s also plans to release older fish,” he said. “We’ve experimented now with 2-year-olds and we know that older fish survive when they’re full grown. What would happen if 3-year-old or 4-year-old or 5-year-old fish are put back into the lake? Would they survive?” Merkley added.

He also mentioned work being done with the farming community, “to see if there’s ways that we can capture more phosphorous, run-off, there’s a bio-char filtering effort. There’s an exploration of establishing, essentially, wetlands to filter phosphorous out of the water. There’s discussions of whether there are farming techniques that will reduce the amount of phosphorous and still have a prosperous agricultural community.”