Merkley facilitates follow-up summit on sucker
by Holly Dillemuth, Herald and News 1/5/2020
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
“So many capable organizations and
scientists are working on the problem and sharing their
information,” Merkley said following the summit.
“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.
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
“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
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?”
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.”
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