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Story and photography by Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun
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It’s 4 a.m. on a frigid October morning and Debbie Carpenter is first in line for the weekly kokanee salmon giveaway at the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery north of Gunnison. Carpenter, cuddling in the car with her two young children to stay warm, drove four hours from Grand Junction, arriving early enough to be assured of getting the prized free fish.
There are eight vehicles lined up behind Carpenter. Just a few years ago, Carpenter says, people camped at the hatchery overnight. There would be dozens of cars lined up before sunrise, the line spilling out onto the highway that runs between Gunnison and Crested Butte.
“Back then a person could drive away with as many as 40 salmon,” she says, adding that the two previous Friday kokanee giveaways in October had been canceled for lack of fish. “Now, sometimes it’s just a few salmon per car.”
Where are the kokanee? It’s a question asked by everyone in line behind Carpenter. And the anglers plying the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir and the East and Gunnison rivers. And the merchants who sell licenses and fishing tackle. And the guides and outfitters who count on clients drawn to the salmon.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Roaring Judy Hatchery manager Seth Firestone says. “How many fish are still in the river?”
Turns out, not many.
Some kokanee are getting lost on the way to the hatchery
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Dan Brauch is searching for answers to the missing salmon question as well. Once a week during the kokanee spawning season, roughly from mid-September to late November, Brauch has motored across Blue Mesa Reservoir to collect kokanee caught in a Merwin fish trap on their way to spawn. In years past the trap has yielded over a hundred kokanee per trip. Now Brauch is lucky to return from the lake with a half dozen.
Normally the kokanee that have matured in Blue Mesa Reservoir swim up to where the Gunnison River enters the lake and from there swim up to the East River, where the Roaring Judy Hatchery is located. Brauch also wonders how many kokanee are missing the left hand channel leading to the hatchery, and continuing up the East River, past their spawning waters.
“There is no black-and-white answer as to how salmon navigate back to their spawning waters.” Brauch says. “It’s thought sockeye salmon, the Pacific Ocean version of the landlocked kokanee, use the Earth’s magnetic poles to help guide them to the proper freshwater inlet.”
Blue Mesa’s kokanee travel 30 miles from the lake to the hatchery, Brauch said, navigating by using the chemical characteristics of the stream water that was imprinted when they were released from the hatchery.
That’s the million-dollar question. How many fish are still in the river?
— Seth Firestone, Roaring Judy Hatchery manager
Despite nature’s supposed perfection with migratory imprinting, some kokanee still miss the hatchery channel entrance. Brauch along with hatchery employees, volunteers and biologists spend many mornings wading up to their hips in the icy channels of the East River netting stray kokanee. But these “lost” salmon still don’t account for the shrinking numbers of kokanee returning naturally to the Roaring Judy.
At a time in the season when the East River can run red with spawning salmon, the hatchery crew netted just 60 fish.
In a normal season around 14,500 of the kokanee, brightly colored orange and red males and the silver females, make their way from Blue Mesa Reservoir to the Roaring Judy Hatchery. At the hatchery more than 8 million eggs are stripped from the females by hatchery employees and fertilized using milt taken from the males.
Kokanee spawn just once and die soon after, so the fish are given away after the eggs and milt are harvested.
By Nov. 16, Brauch estimated only 4,000 kokanee had returned and only 1.6 million eggs had been harvested.
(Left) Gunnison aquatic biologist Dan Brauch, left, and fisheries technician Sam Neal motor across Blue Mesa Reservoir with kokanee salmon kept in a tub. (Right) Kokanee salmon, freshly netted from the East River, wait to be transferred to a concrete holding run where they will be stripped of eggs and milt.
Blue Mesa was already a dangerous place to be a salmon. It’s only gotten worse.
As soon as the ice melts on Blue Mesa Reservoir in the spring, 3 million kokanee, each about the size of a small human finger, are released into the East River from a portal at the Roaring Judy Hatchery where they spawned.
Before the tiny fish reach Blue Mesa Reservoir, 10% will have succumbed to predation: eaten by the birds, bears, mink, racoons and hungry trout that scoop them up by the mouthful. In the two to four years the kokanee spend growing to maturity in the depths of Blue Mesa thousands more are eaten by predatory lake trout — kokanee are the lake trout’s primary food source — or caught by the flotillas of fishermen who use sonar to hunt the schools. Some are killed by disease and by accident.
(left) Employees of the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery process kokanee salmon that have returned to the hatchery to spawn. Up to 14,000 salmon usually return, and around 8 million eggs are harvested. But not this year. (right) A female Kokanee salmon is milked for eggs. The eggs are to be fertilized and raised at the hatchery before being released back into the East River in the spring.
The survival of 4,000 salmon out of 3 million fry says something about the hard life of Blue Mesa kokanee in 2022.
Drought may be the biggest challenge Blue Mesa’s kokanee population faces today. Two consecutive years of low snowpack in the Colorado River Basin have failed to replenish the lake during the spring and summer months. Now Blue Mesa’s water is being released downstream to help drought-depleted Lake Mead and Lake Powell keep their hydroelectric plants functioning.
Blue Mesa Reservoir’s surface is nearly 78 feet below “full pool,” or capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s website monitoring the lake’s levels. According to the same agency, Blue Mesa is at 32% of capacity.
Out of 3 million fry, only about 4,000 salmon made it back to the hatchery in 2022.
“Drought certainly has an impact on the kokanee,” Brauch says. “When we have reduced volume in the reservoir we tend to see bigger problems with algae blooms, lower oxygen levels and warmer water temperatures. The kokanee get crunched into a small band of habitat with a lot of predators.”
As the schools of kokanee are crowded into smaller areas gill lice infect larger numbers of fish. Gill lice are parasites, about the size of a pinhead, that attach to the gills, mouths and fins of the fish, preventing them from breathing normally. The parasite threatens the fish’s survival, impairing their immune system, growth and ability to tolerate warm water, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife fact sheet.
“Gill lice have changed kokanee fishing a bunch,” says Ryan VanLanen, who has guided anglers on Blue Mesa for 20 years. “At these low water levels gill lice catch up with those fish. The kokanee act choked out. The fish don’t fight as hard. It’s like they can’t breathe.”
VanLanen adds that while the fishing community is concerned about gill lice in Blue Mesa’s kokanee, they have more concern about the low water levels. “If we can’t even launch a boat because the water’s too low it doesn’t matter how many fish are in the lake.”
“Gill lice on their own don’t cause mortality of the kokanee population,” Brauch says. “But when you combine gill lice with other stressors, like degraded habitat conditions, it reduces the fish’s ability to survive.”
(left) Colorado Parks and Wildlife Fisheries Technician Mars Charlebois checks a Kokanee salmon for gill lice, age, weight and general health at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office in Gunnison on Oct. 27. (right) Gill lice infest the gills of a salmon.
Shrinking kokanee numbers show how drastically climate change is affecting Gunnison Valley
Is Brauch worried that fewer returning kokanee will put an end to Blue Mesa’s salmon run? No. The Roaring Judy Hatchery’s spawn will fall short this season compared to previous ones. “But,” he says, “when we can’t get enough eggs to cover local needs from Blue Mesa, we’ll get our kokanee eggs from somewhere else.”
“There is so much value in the kokanee fishery in Blue Mesa. We are going to continue to manage and work with the challenges,” he says. “Some, like drought and gill lice, we have little control over, and make the adjustments that we need in order to maintain kokanee populations within Blue Mesa.”
One other aspect about drought, says Seth Firestone, the Roaring Judy Hatchery manager, “is that we’re sending those 3 million kokanee fry into an already compromised habitat and they’ve got to, what, survive two to four more years?”
Blue Mesa Dam was completed in 1966, the same year that the Roaring Judy Hatchery started rearing fish. Two years later the first kokanee were introduced into the reservoir. The kokanee thrived in the cold, deep water, providing food for the trophy-sized lake trout the lake is famous for, as well as drawing large numbers of people who fish solely for the salmon.
Brauch says studies done by Colorado Parks and Wildlife have found that the kokanee contribute over an estimated $5 million a year to the local economy. That includes meals, hotels, fishing gear, buying gas, hiring guides, “all the funds that fishermen spend to support their recreation.”
Now, the kokanee and their shrinking numbers are providing insight into how drastically a changing climate and drought are affecting the web of life, human and animal, in the Gunnison Valley.
Even if there were several back-to-back winters with deep snow and Blue Mesa filled to the brim it would still take years for the kokanee to return to their pre-drought population. But the work Firestone and others do to maintain the population is worth it, because this one little fish species has a big impact in the Gunnison Valley. The kokanee are so important to the community, economy and ecology that it’s important to keep the cycle going, Firestone says.
“The Roaring Judy is in a unique spot,” Firestone says. “We release from the hatchery where we grow the kokanee. That’s pretty special. It’s unique. People come here to hear the story. To see the fish. When people hear Roaring Judy, they think kokanee.”