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UPPER KLAMATH LAKE – Two species of Klamath Basin sucker have been dying before they can reach adulthood, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is showing continued interest in expediting efforts already underway to save the fish species.

Merkley was in Klamath Falls Monday, touring facilities aimed at rearing and releasing the short-nose and Lost River suckers — both federally listed as endangered species. Merkley helped secure $3.5 million for ongoing recovery efforts at the Gone Fishing sucker-rearing facility. He also organized a summit on sucker recovery in November 2018, attended by government agencies and media.

Merkley toured the facility with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials for the first time Monday, and spoke of wanting to cut through any “red tape” to build more ponds, enough to hold 60,000 fish.

“We’re happy to apply the speed throttle,” Merkley said. “There’s just an urgency to this.”

Dan Blake, Fish and Wildlife field supervisor in Klamath Falls, is appreciative of the support.

“I think a lot of the course that we’ve got for the immediate future is charted at this point,” Blake said.

Four to eight more rearing ponds to be built on site are possible this year, according to USFWS fish biologist Zach Tiemann.

Upping the capacity at Gone Fishing from 10,000 to 60,000 suckers is hoped to reverse a downward trend in the population in the lake since the 1990s.

“(60,000) That is the number that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has estimated that they need to put out into the lake to recover the species over the time period of the project,” said Ron Barnes, a tilapia farmer who leases the property for Gone Fishing. “They figure that it will take the 30 years.”

Barnes moved to the Klamath Basin in the 2000s to raise tropical fish and was invited by Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 to help figure out how to raise suckers. The effort started in the late 2000s but hit a wall. Then, in 2015, it regained momentum.

The first year, the facility had seven man-made ponds to rear juveniles. The plan is to roughly triple that capacity with new ponds.

“It’s a pretty significant leap forward,” Barnes said.

“The ultimate goal is to recover the species so that then, water can be available for everybody again,” Barnes added. “The fish are indicating the health of the environment. So if you restore the fish population, it indicates that your environment is healthy.”

Basin agriculture producer Tracey Liskey, along for the tour of Gone Fishing, agreed and also praised the effort.

“I want the water back so I want the fish healthy,” Liskey said. “This is actually the first thing that we have seen that is doing something for the fish.”

Floating pens

Fish and Wildlife officials also led Merkley and Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry on a boat tour of the newest recovery effort: floating netted pens on Upper Klamath Lake.

The pens contain 900 fish – 1 1/2- to 2-year-olds – reared at the Gone Fishing facility, which can swim freely and feed in a natural habitat while they acclimate to the lake.

“We’re putting them out in the wild but keeping them in a closed system to where we can still study them,” Tiemann told Merkley, while at the pens located off Rattlesnake Point.

Officials are trying to study what exactly is causing sucker mortality once they are released into the lake.

The goal is also to increase the survival rate from previous efforts, especially with the opportunity to monitor suckers even more closely in the pens from a platform around the net’s perimeter.

The floating net pens act as a test for the fish to acclimate to water temperature and to feed in a natural environment. But the real test comes in October when the fish will be released into the lake to see if they make it on their own. Fish can be tracked with Passive Int Transponders (PIT) tags after being released.

“When we pull this net in October to release them, that is when we get a final count,” Tiemann added.

“I think it’s helpful,” Gentry told the Herald and News. “We’re in a scary situation here so anything we can do to move things along and try to figure out what’s going on with the fish.”

Many parts

This isn’t the first time USFWS has released reared suckers into the lake.

After being reared at the Gone Fishing facility, about 3,200 2-year-old juvenile suckers were released into Upper Klamath Lake this year. All were fitted with PIT tag devices, and 200 of them with additional radio tracking devices.

Devices were placed in the lake to track groups of the fish where they were expected to go, such as spawning grounds.

“We are thinking at this point, based on the radio tags, that we’re at about half survival,” Blake said.

“We have more than one release site,” he said. “This is also all part of an experiment – it’s science real time. We’re trying to learn from it and improve on it.”

Blake said, however, it’s been hard to predict exactly what was needed to help recover the species in the past.

“We’ve got to pull out all the stops, look at all tools and do everything we can to try to recover the sucker. We’ve got to reverse this trajectory that’s stayed downward for several decades.”

Currently, about 30,000 to 50,000 Lost River sucker call the lake home, as well as 5,000 to 8,000 short-nose sucker, according to Blake.

Short-nose sucker are thought to be in most danger of extinction, with five to 10 years left, Blake said.

Lost River suckers are thought to have a little more time, but still only 10 to 15 years on top of that, he added.

“We don’t want to come so close to the edge to find out for sure,” Blake said.

Water quality

Blake sees the species as an indicator of a larger problem with water quality in Upper Klamath Lake.

“It’s not a lake that’s functioning as well as it could,” Blake said. “It’s because of that that the suckers aren’t doing as well as they could. So I do believe that if we could get the lake in better shape that the suckers will be in better shape and really that should help improve other things, like the economic availability of the lake for other things.”

Blake also said USFWS would like to have a reserve population of sucker for collecting larvae in the future.

“If they suddenly all died for some reason, then we would still have some at Gone Fishing,” Blake said.

Blake is optimistic, however, that all efforts are leading officials toward a brighter future for the sucker, and in turn for the Basin.

“We’re trying to pull all the pieces together to make it happen,” Blake said.