Friday August 12, 2022

High Country News

Tens of thousands of fish died over the weekend in the Klamath River, the result of the McKinney Fire in Siskiyou County, California, just south of the Oregon border. As the fire burned, thunderstorms and flash floods unleashed landslides of ash and mud into the water, causing parts of the river to swell even as its oxygen levels dropped. Scientists say that dead fish started appearing last Thursday — adult and juvenile suckerfish, juvenile chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, lamprey, crawdads and more.

“Everything that’s in there is dead,” said Kenneth Brink (Karuk), a field supervisor with the Karuk tribal fisheries program and a traditional fisherman. Brink, who was one of the first people onsite to witness the fish kill, said the river appeared to double in size after the landslides, darkened by the thick plume of debris. For days afterward, even the whitewater was the color and consistency of chocolate milk, thick with suspended particles. By Saturday, an “unbearable” stench reached as far as the highway, 100 yards away. “It was not for the weak-stomached,” said Brink. “It’s something I’ve never smelled in my life.” A few days later, the water was bubbling from submerged decomposition, and maggots appeared on the surface, Brink said. 

Nutrients in a plume like this feed the growth of microbes and algae, Brink explained. And their profusion sucks oxygen out of the water, while the debris kills pre-existing forms of algae — a process that siphons yet more oxygen from the water, in a double-whammy of oxygen-depleting cycles. “It is a quick little poison concoction,” he said.

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