Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office
Pacific Southwest Region

Status of Native Anadromous Fish Species of the Klamath River Basin

Chinook Salmon – Oncorynchus tshawytscha

Chinook salmon, photo by A. Nova, Yurok Tribal Fisheries ProgramChinook salmon are currently the most economically important commercial fishery resource in the Klamath River, and are caught in ocean fisheries from Monterey Bay to the Columbia River. In the Klamath Basin, Chinook currently follow two life history patterns.  “Spring Chinook” return from the ocean in the spring, and spend the summer making their way to higher portions of the watershed, where they spawn in August-September.  Before the construction of dams on the Klamath River, spring Chinook were the dominant salmon race in the Upper Klamath Basin, but they have been reduced to one dwindling wild run in the Salmon River subbasin and a hatchery run in the Trinity River. 

“Fall Chinook” return from the ocean in September and spawn October-November in the main stem rivers and large tributaries.  Most Chinook juveniles migrate to the ocean in the late spring of their first year, avoiding the hazards of summer rearing. 

The Iron Gate Hatchery releases an average of 7 million juvenile fall Chinook each spring, while Trinity River Hatchery releases an average of 2.8 million fall Chinook and 1.6 million spring Chinook (Myers et al 1998).  Fall Chinook numbers have declined, but are still sufficient to allow harvest, see figure, below. 

Klamath Basin Fall Chinook Natural Spawners, 1978-2007

Sturgeon – Acipenser species

Green sturgeon on the Klamath River, photo by Yurok Tribal Fisheries ProgramSturgeon are large fish that can live more than 50 years.  White sturgeon (A. transmontanus) are occasionally caught in the Klamath River, and historically may have spawned in the basin in low numbers.  Green sturgeon (A. medirostris ) still spawn in the lower Klamath and Trinity Rivers.  Juveniles spend 1-3 years in the river.  They then spend up to 13 years ranging widely in the ocean and other rivers, before reaching sexual maturity and returning to spawn (National Research Council 2004).  Unlike salmon, sturgeon do not die after spawning, but can spawn repeatedly.  The Klamath and Trinity Rivers are the principle spawning areas for the green sturgeon.  Green sturgeon are found in the lower 70 miles of the Klamath River.  There is a tribal fishery in the Klamath for green sturgeon, and they are caught elsewhere along the Pacific Northwest.  A petition to list green sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act was submitted in 2001, determined not warranted by NOAA Fisheries in 2003, and reconsidered as the result of a lawsuit in 2004.  In April, 2006, NOAA listed green sturgeon south of the Eel River as threatened, and placed the species north of the Eel River on its Species of Concern List.  For more information, click here.

Lamprey - Lampetra species

Pacific Lamprey, photo by A. Nova, Yurok Tribal Fisheries ProgramLamprey are eel-like fish that are an important resource for Native Americans, but they have been studied very little by biologists.  The most common lamprey in the Klamath River is the Pacific lamprey, Lampetra tridentata.  Like salmon, adult lamprey return from the ocean to spawn in the Klamath Basin, but their offspring, (known as ammocoetes) spend a longer time in the river than juvenile salmon, perhaps as long as 7 years. They then migrate to the ocean and live as predators for several years.  Lamprey prey on salmon, but they also benefit salmon by serving as an alternative food source for sea lions and other predators.  Other lamprey species, such as the Klamath River lamprey (L. similes), the River lamprey (L. ayresi), and the Western Brook Lamprey (L. richardsoni) may live in the Klamath River.  Long-time residents on the river have observed a steep decline in lamprey numbers.  For more information on this species, click here.

Eulachon - Thaleichthys pacificus

Photo:  Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation SocietyThe eulachon (also known as candlefish) is a smelt with oily flesh that spends most of its life at sea, but spawns in the lower 10 miles of selected coastal rivers from Northern California to Alaska.  Historically, eulachon spawned in the Klamath River in great numbers in March and April, and were an important fishery resource for Native Americans.  According to Moyle (2002) in the Klamath River eulachon have been scarce since the 1970’s, with the exception of three years:  they were plentiful in 1988 and moderately abundant again in 1989 and 1998.  After 1998 they were thought to be extinct in the Klamath Basin, until a small run was observed in the estuary in 2004 (Brucker, pers. comm.).  For more information on this species, click here.

 Steelhead trout – Onchorynchus mykiss

Klamath Mountains Province Steelhead, photo by USFWSSteelhead trout are rainbow trout that follow an anadromous life history pattern.  “Winter steelhead” return from the ocean when streams reach winter flow levels and spawn in tributaries from January through April.  “Summer steelhead” return from the ocean in late spring, spend the summer and fall in deep pools, and spawn in winter.  Steelhead can spawn more than once, returning to the ocean between runs.  Steelhead are the Klamath River’s highest valued sport fish. Their spawning runs in the Klamath Basin prior to the 1900’s probably exceeded several million fish (Hardy and Addley 2001).  Subsequent runs declined steadily to an estimated 100,000 fish in the 1980’s (National Research Council 2004).  Summer steelhead are vulnerable to loss of cold-water summer habitat; in 1999 their population in five Mid-Klamath tributaries was estimated to be 305 adults. 

The California Department of Fish and Game completed a Steelhead Restoration and Management Plan for California in 1996.  For more information on this species, click here.

Coastal Cutthroat Trout – Onchorynchus clarki clarki

Coastal Cutthroat Trout, photo by USFWSCoastal cutthroat trout have a similar life history to winter steelhead, but are restricted to smaller coastal streams.  In the Klamath Basin, they are found in the tributaries of the Klamath River within about 22 miles of the estuary (National Research Council 2004).  The population status of coastal cutthroat in the Klamath Basin is not known, but they are still present.   For more information on this species, click here.

Coho Salmon – Oncorynchus kisutch

Coho salmon on Scott River, photo by CDFGCoho salmon have a three-year life history pattern.  Adults spawn in late fall and early winter, lower in the watershed than steelhead.  Juveniles spend their first year in fresh water, preferring cool, slow habitats such as side channels and pools.  They then make their way to the ocean and spend about 18 months there.  Unlike Chinook and steelhead, nearly all coho spawn as 3-year-olds, so each coho stream has essentially three populations, each returning every three years.  Coho  spawning and winter juvenile rearing are difficult to survey, so only recently have biologists collected detailed information on coho in the Klamath River.  Coho are raised at the Iron Gate Hatchery (averaging about 70,000 smolts released per year) and the Trinity River Hatchery (averaging about 500,000 smolts per year) (CDFG and NMFS 2001).  Hardy and Addley (2001) reported that coho salmon spawning escapement in the Klamath River system, including hatchery stocks, was between 15,400 and 20,000 adults in 1983, a 90% decline since the 1940’s.  Coho are no longer observed in some Klamath tributaries where they historically spawned (National Research Council 2004) or they are no longer seen every year.  NOAA Fisheries listed Southern Oregon/Northern California coastal coho as Threatened in 1997, and is working on a recovery plan.  The State of California listed coho as Threatened in 2004.  Both a state-wide recovery plan and a recovery strategy for the Scott and Shasta Subbasins have been completed.