Ecology And Environment

Explaining why the Endangered Short Nosed Suckers are being Mismanaged



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The short nosed sucker or Klamath mullet is being mismanaged into extinction. The reasons for this aren't hard to understand, and the solutions aren't much more difficult to figure out.

To understand the mismanagement, though, it is first necessary to have some facts and history.

What is a short nosed sucker? As the name suggests, this is a bony fish that has an under slung sucker mouth. The fish species eats carrion, algae, and live foods. It can also grow to several pounds in weight, and can live for many years.

Part of the problem with this fish is that they are found only in the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon. The rivers in the area all drain into Klamath Lake, a body of water about 42 miles long and 14 miles wide. The lake is relatively shallow, having an average depth of about six feet, though there are areas, which are considerably deeper.

The size of the lake represents a huge amount of water, and in this water, Klamath mullet once thrived. As late as the 60's and early 70's, mullet were caught in a couple of rivers that feed the lake, by a method called 'snagging'.

In snagging, a reasonably large treble hook was thrown into the water and rapidly reeled in. The mullets were so numerous that the hooks snagged them easily. Being considered a 'trash fish', they were usually discarded, used as fertilizer, or fed to animals. It wasn't uncommon for fishermen to be lined up almost shoulder-to-shoulder for several miles of the river, to participate in this method of fishing. (This fishing method is now illegal in Oregon.)

The total take of fish was huge. In the 60's, I personally observed a fisherman pulling out about 25 fish, each in excess of 5 pounds, in an hour. That was one of many hundreds of fishermen.

Fast forward to the 1990's. The mullet runs had dwindled, understandably because of the number of fish caught. They'd been given endangered status, in part because of the number, and in part because of the diminished size of the fish.

One of the first decisions made for the mullet's benefit' was to retain as much water as possible in the Klamath watershed. Environmentalists who knew nothing at all about the mullet influenced this decision heavily.

This ruling hurt several groups. First were salmon fishermen and industries. Klamath Lake feeds Klamath River, which flows to the ocean in Northern California, and which is a major salmon river on the Pacific Coast. Retaining water meant decreasing the outflow of water down the Klamath River through the use of dams.

Reduced flow meant that fewer salmon could return to their spawning streams. Making it even worse was the fact that the 90's were a time of drought in the area, so outflow from Klamath Lake was already curtailed. The salmon still have not recovered.

Farmers were also greatly impacted, particularly potato farmers. The Klamath Basin is perfect for growing potatoes, and there were many small potato farms. In fact, at one time, Klamath County produced more potatoes than the entire state of Idaho, which is well known for potato production.

However, potatoes require a lot of water, and most of that water came from Klamath Lake and its tributaries. With the new ruling, the amount of water the farmers could take dropped tremendously. Many small farms went out of business because their crops couldn't be maintained in drought years, with no water to give them.

The saddest part of all was that all of this was needless. The Klamath Mullet is a fish that loves warm water. In fact, it won't lay eggs unless the water is warm, water levels are low, and the water is murky. In the past, this happened each year with the normal draw down of the water in the lake and rivers.

With the ruling, though, lake levels were maintained and not allowed to drop. Not only did this hurt the fishermen and the farmers, it hurt the mullet! They stopped breeding, because there weren't optimal conditions for breeding. Numbers of fish fell even farther.

All of this was due to mismanagement. If the governmental agencies placed in charge of the situation had only taken a few moments to consider what conditions would be optimal for the fish to breed like crazy, the potato farmers would have received a greater amount of water, not less. The flow down the Klamath River would have been greater than normal, not less than normal. Note that few officials have admitted their mistake, to this very day.

Today, people are finally beginning to understand, but damage has already been done. It will take decades before the damage has any hope at salvaging much of anything. Once again, man, with little or no knowledge of the subject matter, deems that he knows best. Once again, nature and fellow man suffers because of his arrogance.

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