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There’s a new summer school opening this week north of Klamath Falls, and the lesson is learning to survive the natural elements.

But these students have fins and a track record of not making it to adulthood in the last two decades.

And while there’s no pressure for these juvenile Klamath Basin suckers, there is optimism about a new way to raise them up in a more natural habitat, and release them equipped to survive in the wild.

Since 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have made it their top priority to recover the species, and they’re willing to try new methods to do so.

New holding pens

Gone Fishing, a sucker-rearing facility outside of Klamath Falls, currently raises the young fish. One and two-year-old suckers that began their lives in the artificial ponds will get to test the waters this summer before graduating to the big leagues: Making it in the lake on their own.

Last Wednesday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Pacific Netting Products, a Washington contractor specializing in netting, unveiled newly built holding pens to Herald and News staff off the banks of Klamath Valley Botanicals.

Located north of Klamath Falls off Highway 97 in Modoc Point, the pens float out on the lake. They can separate juvenile fish into two areas for differing ages, and are equipped to protect the fish from predatory birds as well as lake-dwelling predators before they are released into the lake in the fall.

Evan Childress, sucker recovery program supervisor for U.S. Fish Wildlife, likens the pens to a finishing school before they graduate to full release into the lake in the fall.

“They get to experience the water quality and seasonal dynamics in a way that we can’t make happen at our (Gone Fishing) facility,” Childress said.

Suitable for survival

A floating platform that holds the gravity-netted pens, built by a Pacific Netting Products, a Washington firm that specializes in them, will be ready and waiting to hold upwards of 3,000 Klamath Basin suckers by early this week.

“It protects them, and keeps them in a location where we know the conditions are suitable for survival, but they still get to feed on all their natural food sources,” Childress said. “A lot less infrastructure than a giant hatchery.”

The floating pens are a pilot project funded through a $3 million congressional allocation, that also includes Childress’ position and three other new USFW positions — all related to sucker recovery in the Basin.

The pens are based off a water quality study by the Klamath Falls field office of U.S. Geological Survey, which put out 100-square-foot floating pens to hold suckers last year. That project was successful, with high rates of survival for the juvenile suckers depending on the location, Childress said.

“The idea was to see when and why they were dying because that’s the issue that we’re having with the sucker populations,” Childress said. “The juveniles are essentially not making it.

“Along the east side of the lake here, there are some spots where they’ve seen good survival in these little pens, which suggested to us that it would be a viable option.”

Hatchery alternative

Childress is hopeful this level of propagation with even more suckers will help find solutions to saving the endangered species, though he has said in the past it is an effort that could take decades.

He’s optimistic the new pens will lead to expanding the capacity to raise fish to survive in the lake. He estimates U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be able to increase their fish capacity 10-fold from Gone Fishing, or by up to 60,000 fish.

“We’ve been raising fish in an off-site location in artificial ponds, which is great because it offers a lot of control,” Childress said. “But we are excited about this because it gives us the opportunity to put the fish in their natural habitat.”

If all goes well, he even would consider relocating all of the suckers from Gone Fishing to pens in the lake as a natural propagation alternative.

“We have had good support from Congress this year and last year to move forward with sucker rearing and certainly would hope that that continues,” Childress said.

“It’s been widely accepted as a necessity at this point,” he added.

The effort to acclimate the fish in their natural habitat isn’t without challenges, however, even with floating pens to hold them.

“The water quality can get bad even in the places where we’re putting them,” he noted, due to the seasonal algae blooms in the lake.

During the spring and early summer, Childress said the algae blooms start to build and grow. Later in the summer, issues can arise with high pH (acidic levels) in the lake due to algae blooms. Problems can also arise when the blooms decompose, which sucks up oxygen and creates challenges, Childress said.

“We’ll have to keep a close eye on that,” Childress said. “We’re looking into ways to provide oxygen to the fish ... just sort of as a safety (precaution).”

Pacific Netting Products started construction on the pens in late May and recently finished the work.

“The flotation is made out of high-density polyethylene, it’s all fusion welded together,” said Dave Erickson of the firm. “That forms a 100 percent water-tight pontoon.”

Netting in the pens is engineered to allow natural sources of food to enter the pen from the bottom of the net, but not potential predators in from side netting, according to Erickson.

Along with the platform and netted pens, Erickson and his crew built a barge with a 1,200-pound anchor. The barge allows Fish and Wildlife to move the pens wherever needed.

The plan is to move the pens about seven miles away to Rattlesnake Point before they are released this fall, Childress said.

Erickson emphasized the approximately 3,000-square-foot pens are environmentally friendly, with all wood non-treated, which follows through with the effort to save the species.