Saving the sucker species

Young Klamath Basin suckers have not made it to adulthood living in Upper Klamath Lake since the early 1990s.

A summit focused on the endangered fish’s survival — organized by Sen. Jeff Merkley at Oregon Tech on Friday — hopes to identify ways to change that, with the goal of a comprehensive plan to save the sucker from extinction.

There are about 50,000 Lost River sucker left in Upper Klamath Lake, a population that Merkley said has decreased by two-thirds. About 8,000 shortnose sucker are left in the lake to date, with about an 80 percent decrease during the last two decades.

“Wow, that’s a real reflection of a challenge when no young fish are surviving,” Merkley said.

“This gathering was triggered by the recognition that the two significant sucker species that live in the lake are in deep, deep, deep trouble. What we have heard is that these fish that once numbered in the millions, now are very few by comparison.

“So that’s a five-alarm fire bell going off for us to come together and understand the causes and the impacts and start addressing the fundamental issues that are related to that,” Merkley added.

The day-long summit was geared toward studying the best ways to recover the endangered species with panels on water quality, disease, as well as the impact of phosphorous from agricultural production.

Federal and state agencies including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Klamath Tribes, as well as the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) were at the table to talk about a species in a class all its own when it comes to survival.

The concept of the summit was conceived about six months ago during water use talks with Alan Mikkelsen, a senior Department of Interior official.

“The fact that none of the juvenile suckers are surviving — basically zero are surviving — that’s what sets off the alarm bells,” Merkley said.

Diverting runoff

Phosphorous and algae only enhance the quandary of saving the species, too.

Merkley called for examining agricultural practices to try to remove phosphorous from agricultural lands before it gets into the Klamath River.

“There’s been work done with the agricultural community to divert the tail-waters, or that is the agricultural run-off, to wetlands, which then serve as a natural opportunity to trap that phosphorous and keep it out of the streams that go out into the lake,” Merkley said.

Merkley spoke of cooperative efforts by Oregon Department of Agriculture, non-governmental organizations, and landowners to implement a series of best management practices on ag land.

“There is ongoing work to reduce erosion through the fencing of cattle so that the cattle are not eroding the streambanks,” he said. “That type of cooperation is essential for us to go forward and solve this challenge as a community.”

Alleviating algae

Merkley also pointed out a concept of removing algae from the lake, though with no cost-effective strategy known at this time to do so.

“But it’s worth exploring, because when you take the algae out, you take out the phosphorous that is trapped in that algae, and the algae doesn’t die,” Merkley said. “You both reduce the toxins, reduce the phosphorous, and reduce the problem.”

Merkley has advocated for a series of agricultural conservation programs as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he said, to help individual ranchers and farmers with conservation practices, that might affect, for example, phosphorous flows from agricultural lands.

But he wouldn’t put a price tag on federal funding needing for a comprehensive plan to save the sucker.

“Part of my goal though wasn’t just to proceed to say, well, there’s big pots of money,” Merkley said. “Part of my goal was to say, what is the challenge?”

Predation of the sucker has been thought to be one of many challenges the species face, though Merkley said it’s much more complicated than it appears. He still believes it’s worth continued study, but said so do toxins that come from blue green algae bloom in the lake.

He also emphasized support to increase efforts to enhance the sucker species through “rearing ponds” such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gone Fishing facility.

“The goal here is that since we know the older fish are surviving in the lake, is can we establish rearing ponds to produce a lot of fish introduced into the lake where they’re able to tolerate the conditions better and survive, and restore the fish into the lake in that matter,” Merkley said.

The numbers are in for the first cohort of fish from Gone Fishing, which were radio-tagged to measure their progress earlier this year.

Juvenile fish not surviving

At least 90 percent or more of the cohort perished, according to Evan Childress, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’re learning from that,” Merkley said. “The goal is, to what size do the fish need to be grown before they’re released in order to have them be successful in the lake.

“There is a collective goal established of developing the ability to release 100,000 suckers a year into the lake, which could be a very, very significant factor in addressing the challenge we’re facing right now.”

The 100,000 number was also used by Mikkelsen, senior adviser to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on water and western resources. Mikkelsen helped release a number of sucker into Shoalwater Bay in March.

Merkley wasn’t specific on details when asked about Mikkelsen’s attempts at water talks, including whether the Klamath Tribes should be invited to the discussion table.

More work to be done

“I just hope the spirit of cooperation that was so present today by all the stakeholders would be one that will ultimately the ability to address the enormous water challenges and of course the water challenges is going to take a tremendous amount of cooperation,” Merkley said.

While he didn’t promise to host annual summits in the future, he appeared open to the idea of another gathering.

“I do think we have to come together repeatedly and see where our progress has been, what’s worked,” Merkley said.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said he’d like to see another summit.

“I definitely think this is a very positive step in the right direction,” Gentry said, standing next to Scott White, executive director of the KWUA. “Certainly we’re interested in harvesting these fish again,” Gentry added.

Gentry also expressed a sense of unity at the summit among the audience from varying backgrounds on the topic of saving the sucker.

“It felt really good to not be focused on politics and it felt good to not be pressured into having discussions about water settlement,” Gentry said following a late afternoon press conference.

“It felt really good to be focused on what I think our members really want us to be focused on, what is going wrong with our fish, what are the problems and what are the solutions.

“It feels like we have a good, positive place to work from,” he added, “to me, a good foundation to move forward.”

“Even though the focus was what can we do right now in the short term, there was a look to the long-term solution — the type of comprehensive approach that was even envisioned in the past water settlements … some of our members have really wondered why the state and federal government and others haven’t done what they really should be doing, even whether there’s a settlement or not.

“They have this responsibility to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act, they have the responsibility to make sure our fish don’t go extinct. They have those responsibilities so to me it was refreshing to not have to try to defend this position that we’re not ready to talk water settlement.”

White called Merkley’s desire to save the sucker species admirable and he expressed appreciation on behalf of the KWUA.

“I’ve been in private meetings with you where it was clear that your desire to recover these species is among your very highest priorities,” White said, referencing Merkley.

White said Merkley understands the strain felt by agricultural producers and that he sees a commitment by the senator to work with family farmers and ranchers to ensure that they are not forgotten.

“The entire Basin will benefit from the recovery of these species,” White said. “Our culture, economy, community, and our future are inter-related, and we are hopeful that opportunities like the sucker rearing program will arise that we can participate in and be supportive of.

“This is our community’s problem and it is going to take our community to fix it. You have our continued commitment to work with you and others in our community with this endeavor.”

Bringing resources

Merkley said his hope is to develop a foundation on the work that’s already been done, and then rally together financial resources together with help from the congressional delegation, state representatives and the governor.

“We have an endangered species challenge that’s also tied into water and so if an appropriate plan can be designed in partnership with the agricultural community, we may be able to bring some of those resources,” Merkley said.

“These issues over water produce enormous tensions, and anxiety, and stress; decades and centuries of agricultural tradition, millenium of Native American tradition, and just the challenge of there’s not enough water for everything.

“And so, my hope was that the tone today would be one of partnership and cooperation … I think that the result today definitely came out on the front end of that. We’re all in this challenge together and I think that greatly increases the odds of being able to take on this challenge successfully.”