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Saving fish


The crew of federal employees waded Thursday along the A Canal, now empty after the end of another irrigation season in the Klamath Reclamation Project.

Equipped with electric wands and dip nets, they were looking for endangered suckers stranded in the canal.

"This is our first day working the A Canal, and we've come up empty so far," said Dan Bennetts, fisheries biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Thursday afternoon.

The "sucker salvage" has become an annual rite of autumn for the Bureau, which is required to avoid killing the fish that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Using battery-powered electrified wands several feet long, the biologists and technicians put 300 volts of electricity into the water that is up to 2 feet deep in spots.

The electricity stuns fish within 5 feet of the wand. Workers wear insulated fishing waders and thick rubber gloves to protect themselves from the current.

The Bureau has been doing the salvage annually since the early 1990s, said Rich Piaskowski, fisheries biologist with the agency. One year crews salvaged more than 10,000 suckers.

The number was down sharply last year, Bennetts said, because of the addition of the $16-million fish screen at the A Canal headgates.

"It appears that that's doing its job and keeping the suckers out," he said.

Bennetts said he and two other Bureau employees, along with two Klamath Irrigation District workers, started the salvage last Tuesday in canals near Malin. About 40 suckers, mostly young-of-the-year fish that are a few inches long, were found in the lower canals.

"No real big fish," he said.

The crew started Thursday on the A Canal, the main artery of the Klamath Reclamation Project that diverts water from Upper Klamath Lake. The salvage will be done this week, Bennetts said.

Rather than going through the entire length of the A Canal, they focus on "hot spots" where suckers have been found trapped before.


Josh Murphy, center, waves an electric wand through the shallow water of the A canal in search of endangered sucker fish Thursday afternoon. Helping Murphy are Colleen Sharp, left, Dan Bennetts and Doug Lane.


"They tend to run upstream when the water starts going down and anywhere there's a blockage that's a hot spot," Bennetts said.

During the salvage they will go over the hot spots a couple times, Piaskowski said.

"We don't always see them," he said.

The new fish screen has a trash rack that blocks debris - and larger fish - from entering the canal. The screens shunt smaller fish into a bypass pipe that leads back to the lake.

Still, Piaskowski said, some tiny suckers manage to get past the screen, and they can become stranded as the water recedes.

"There are always pockets of water left when they shut off at the end of the season," he said.

Any suckers recovered from canals are loaded into a green metal box in the back of a pickup, hauled to Moore Park and plopped into Upper Klamath Lake.

Although the workers hadn't found any suckers in the A Canal, Bennetts said they had seen a good amount of chubs and minnows - resident fish that live in the lingering canal water year round.

Behind the crew a flock of gulls swarmed, feasting on the stunned chubs and minnows left in their wake.


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