Kick-off and safety meeting at Iron Gate Reservoir

They are called c’waam and koptu in the native tongue of the Klamath Tribes. They are two fish species that often live for decades, up to fifty years, and they have been an integral part of the diet and culture of southern Oregon and northern California tribes since time immemorial.

Tribal people knew that the fish always returned to the streams and springs, and always just in time to save the community from starvation after the harsh winter exhausted other food supplies. The return of the c’waam and koptu meant life – immediate protein in staggering abundance – a gift from the hand of the Creator. Ceremonies were built around these prized fish.

Klamath Tirbes Alex and James with RES Olivia

Alex and James with the Klamath Tribes and Olivia with RES helped with the effort

Today, for numerous reasons that include the loss of wetlands and resulting degradation in water quality, the fish are critically endangered. In normal circumstances the c’waam and koptu are naturally found in a few water bodies in the Upper Klamath Basin, remnants of ice age lakes in Southern Oregon.

But these are not normal circumstances.

Net set at IG

Net setting at Iron Gate Reservoir

Hundreds of the fish have been found in places they do not belong and cannot long survive – in hydroelectric reservoirs downstream of their native habitat; reservoirs scheduled to soon be drained as part of an ambitious plan to restore the Klamath River to a free-flowing condition.

But with population levels already hovering on the ragged edge of extinction, every fish counts. That is why a joint operation with the Klamath Tribes, state and federal agencies, Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), River Design Group and others have been racing against the clock.
On a cool evening in late April, just as the sun began to set, three boats were launched into Iron Gate Reservoir in far Northern California for the first in a series of nighttime operations to rescue and relocate c’waam and koptu.

shortnose sucker_Copco

Shortnose Sucker captured at Copco Reservoir

RES is organizing the overall effort, so Daniel Chase, Director of Fisheries, Aquatics & Design for RES’ Western Region, supervised a 25-person team from five different organizations who conducted a nonstop operation that spanned seven days.

Three boat crews fished about 47 hours and conducted 189 net sets that captured over 280 fish. The effort included the capture, collection of genetic samples, PIT tagging, holding and translocation. In total, 181 endangered fish were relocated to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Status reports were shared with the tribal community during the entire process of netting, tagging, and moving the revered fish. The entire team was deeply aware they were moving a cultural keystone that connects the Klamath Tribes with their ancestors and is a fundamental part of their life story.

RDG and Klamath Tribes return to shore

Staffers from River Design Group and Klamath Tribes return to shore

Closer to home, the Klamath Tribes are an integral part of the Oregon effort at JC Boyle Reservoir in May.

Much has been written about the major effort to restore salmon runs in the Klamath River and reopen habitat in Southern Oregon rivers and streams. But saving the c’waam and koptu is also a critical component of a broad-based effort to restore the Klamath Basin.