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Wait for science to decide on fish die-off

Published June 17, 2004

The outbreak of a fish-killing parasite in the Klamath River adds to the mysteries about fish die-offs - and to the fear that the Klamath Reclamation Project will unfairly bear the blame. Let's hope good science can get a handle on this.

Usually, when anything goes wrong on the river, downstream fishing interests point upriver to the Project as the source of all evil. Thus, if the parasite that's killing fish in the river tales a heavy toll of the salmon fingerlings heading downstream, the Project is in heavy risk of unfairly taking the blame.

The parasite, commonly known a "C shasta," is always in the river, but, like most parasites, spreads rapidly under certain conditions. The infection rate, which is said to be high with large numbers of dead salmon fingerlings being found, spreads more rapidly in warm water.

But the water hasn't been warm.

"The temperatures are good and the oxygen levels are good for fish," said John Engbring, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's California and Nevada operations.

Flows and water temperatures are always at the center of controversies on the river.

When an estimated 34,000 adult salmon trying to come upriver died in the fall and winter of 2002, the Klamath Project got the first blame from downriver. The Project, it was said, takes too much water out of the river.

The true answer was more elusive and certainly didn't finger the Project.

A year later, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report targeted a combination of factors including a large salmon run, crowded conditions in the lower river, low streamflows and hot weather. A different government report also said the high streamflows several years prior to the die-off may have changed the channels so that fish could not get upstream in low water as they had in the past.

There's not much there that the Project could have affected, and it's debatable whether sending more warm water downstream would have done any good. And if cold water is needed, why not restore more of the historic flows of cold water to the lower Klamath that used to come from the Trinity River?

It was not clear-cut what caused the 2002 die-off, though people downriver were quick to point to the Project. We hope there's no similar stampede this time. Let science decide.

The "H&N view" represents the opinion of the newspaper's editorial board.

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