Saving the Suckers: Solutions sought in Klamath Basin fish population

More than 100 people gathered in an Oregon Tech. room in Klamath falls Thursday to try to determine the future of two fish species: the Shortnose and Lost River Suckers. 

Populations of the suckers are dwindling– so much so that Sen Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said there are basically no suckers under 20 to 25 years old in the Klamath Basin.

“It’s about water quality,” said Merkley following Friday’s ‘Sucker Recovery Summit.’ “I mean, not only are the suckers dying, but nobody swims in the lake.”

Other factors contributing to the declining number of suckers include loss of habitat and invasive species. But according to Merkley, poor water quality– likely caused by algae– is the most prominent and most concerning factor.

During the summit, local stakeholders gathered to share information and try to brainstorm short-term solutions to help the suckers until a long-term fix is found.

Ron Barnes was in the audience. As the owner of Gone Fishing, a fish farm about ten miles south of Klamath Falls, Barnes was contacted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to help repopulate the suckers.

The suckers not only hold a huge historic significance for native Klamath Tribes, but Barnes also calls them an ‘indicator species.’

If they aren’t doing well, he said, then there’s a bigger problem at hand.

He agrees that water quality is a main concern, especially for younger fish who are more sensitive to environmental factors.

“If conditions are good, they’re quite a robust fish that grows well and thrives,” said Barnes. “But conditions aren’t perfect in the lake, so they’re having trouble.”

Earlier this year, Barnes released 2,500 suckers into the basin in an effort to boost their population.

All fish were equipped with passive tags, which would notify ODFW when the fish passed certain sensors in the water.

But the more telling data came from the 200 fish that carried surgically attached radio tags. Those tags allowed specialists to track the fish individually by use of boat or airplane.

“By the end of late summer, it appeared to us that most of those fish probably died,” said Barnes.

Next year, Barnes is releasing 7,000 more suckers in the lake, and 10,000 more the year after that. His hope is that these fish will be older, and thus, less sensitive to the threats of the current basin environment.

But more permanent solutions will likely have to come in the form of legislation.

Senator Merkley said he’s working with Senator Ron Wyden to restore half a million dollars in funding to the Klamath tribes. He says that money would fund water quality research, which would in turn benefit the suckers.