Creature Feature: Spring Chinook

October, 2017


Creature Feature title image

Spring Chinook - Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

Spring Chinook and summer steelhead in the Salmon River. Photo: Nat Pennington.



Klamath spring-run Chinook salmon (springers) were once the most prolific fish in the Klamath Basin. With over 100,000 fish returning to the river each year to spawn, springers thrived in the headwater streams of the Klamath. But by the early 20th century, springers suffered precipitous declines due to hydraulic mining, logging, diversions, and particularly from the construction of dams on the Klamath, Shasta, and Trinity Rivers. In the Klamath River drainage above the Trinity, the Salmon River springers are the last self-sustaining wild population, with annual runs of 80–1,600 fish.

Tribes in the Klamath Basin have suffered both economically and spiritually since the near extirpation of spring Chinook in the Middle and Upper Klamath. According to Jeff Mitchell of the Modoc and Klamath Tribes, “The Klamath and Modoc peoples collectively refer to themselves as ‘the maqlaq’ meaning the people. We are fish people, hunters and gatherers. It is the fish that give us life. Our Spring Ciyals run (Salmon and steelhead)…were especially important to the tribal peoples because by the time February would arrive after long winters… if we could survive until our first fish runs in the early spring, we would be blessed with the life once again.”

New genetic research from U.C. Davis has shed light on the evolutionary history of Klamath River spring Chinook. Springers are genetically distinguishable from fall-run Chinook. This difference is most apparent in their fat. Springers have a fat content of up to 22% compared to 12% in fall Chinook. This fat is extremely healthy, identified as one of the most concentrated sources of Omega 3, critical in development of brain tissue.

Like coho, spring-run Chinook juveniles remain in streams for a year or more before moving to the sea. Adults return to freshwater from April to July and congregate in deep pools where they hold through September and spawn.  This strategy allows them to spawn and develop in upstream reaches of tributaries that are often inaccessible to fall-run Chinook.

Temperatures below 16°C (61°F) are necessary as the fish are susceptible to disease in warmer water, and eggs lose viability as temperatures increase.

Klamath dam removal would reopen vast amounts of good habitat for springers. Many tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake stay below 19°C (66°F) through the entire summer. Large accretions and subterranean springs exist under the current site of the Klamath dam reservoirs. These cool water pockets and deep pools, once uncovered, should provide sufficient cold-water refugia for the upstream migration of spring Chinook into Oregon.

Until the dams are removed, there is much that can be done to help the springers. Spring flow releases from Trinity Reservoir would help to preserve Klamath spring Chinook until dam removal gives them access to required habitat. Better hatchery management is also important. A 100 percent adipose fin clip mark, to help fishermen distinguish hatchery fish from native, is long overdue for hatchery production. Protection of the Salmon River spring Chinook is also paramount for the true restoration of the Klamath Basin. According to many climate change models, the Klamath’s volcanic elevations may be resilient as the climate changes, capturing snowpack and therefore the restoration of the Basin is of utmost importance for biodiversity.

You can help springers by volunteering at your local Klamath Basin watershed group, attending public hearings and speaking on behalf of Klamath restoration, commenting on dam removal and water plans, monitoring the Klamath and reporting fish die-offs, conserving water locally, and participating in rallies around Klamath Basin issues. Together, let’s rekindle our love for these iconic salmon that are critical to our region’s food chain and recover them for generations to come.

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