A young Chinook salmon, called a smolt, near Vallejo, Calif., on April 24, 2014. North Coast tribes and environmentalists fear that the smolts and Chinooks may not survive this year’s low river flows and warm water.
The ongoing California drought has pitted wild salmon against farmers in a fight for water. While growers of almonds, one of the state’s biggest and most lucrative crops, enjoy booming production and skyrocketing sales to China, the fish, it seems, might be left high and dry this summer—and maybe even dead.
Thousands of adult king, or Chinook, salmon are now struggling to survive in the Klamath River of northern California, where waters are running dangerously low and warm due to diversion of river flows into the Central Valley, an intensely farmed agricultural area. If more water isn’t let into the Klamath River within the coming days, the salmon, which are migrating upstream toward their spawning grounds, could succumb to a disease called gill rot.
The disease, which played a role in the 2002 Klamath die-off of tens of thousands of Chinook, flourishes in warm water and is already creeping through the salmon population. Frankie Myers, a member of the Yurok tribe, a Native American group that lives in the Klamath River basin, tells The Salt about 1,000 salmon have already died this summer in a 100-mile stretch of river. Now, the remaining fish, which cannot survive in water much warmer than 70 degrees, are clustering in dense schools around the mouths of cold tributary streams, seeking relief from the sun-warmed river.