The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is constructing a multi-million-dollar sucker hatchery

Existing facility using state-of-the-art equipment and geothermal water

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is building a Sucker Assisted Rearing Program, which has steadily grown from when it was first initiated in 2013. The USFWS has been releasing captive-reared wild juvenile Lost River (c’waam) and shortnose (koptu) suckers into Upper Klamath Lake since 2018.  

Construction on the expansion of the Klamath Falls National Fish Hatchery began in 2022 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026. The complex will include additional parking spaces, a wet laboratory with a fume hood, tank rooms, additional space for offices, and locker rooms for staff gear. In addition, there will be maintenance and rootstock bays for suckers, as well as a fleet bay for boat storage and vehicles.

“When completed, the hatchery will have a sucker release capacity of up to 60,000 fish per year, which will enhance our ability to stabilize these highly endangered populations,” said USFWS Public Affairs Officer Susan Sawyer. 

 Water that is approximately 190 degrees will be pumped from underground geothermal wells into a head pond, where it will be allowed to cool down and be able to flow into any of the retaining ponds where the suckers are reared. Both species of federally listed sucker, c’waam and koptu, will be raised to be stocked to Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River, where they can mature and spawn.  

“When completed, there will be 33 production ponds totaling over eight-and-a-half surface acres of water on the hatchery grounds. Ten ponds will be at the top of the facility, in tier 1, and will hold 80,000 to 100,000 age zero sucker fry,” said Mark Yost, Supervisory Fish Biologist and Hatchery Manager, “The next level is tier two with fourteen ponds located below tier one. These will have the capacity to hold from 65,000 to 75,000 age-one fish.” 

 “What this design allows us to do is to take drain water and actually divert it, if we need to, to the tier two ponds,” explained Yost. “This is known as serial reuse of water. Basically, it’s just a water conservation strategy. If there were sick fish in tier 1 ponds above, that could transmit to fish in tier 2 ponds below. But with this system, we will have the baby fish at the top of the facility with the best water quality possible, and the older fish that are generally less susceptible to disease in the ponds below.” 

The USFWS has a team of experienced and dedicated biological technicians, fish biologists, and fish and wildlife biologists who perform daily tasks at the hatchery. These tasks include feeding, cleaning, moving, or processing fish, stocking, inventory, adult fish spawning, general fish/aquaculture production work, field research, surveys, and monitoring. 

“The knowledge, skills, and combined decades of experience of Service biologists and technicians haveserved the sucker captive rearing program well,” said Sawyer. “The Service continues to expand upon rearing techniques in practice in other facilities on similar species to inform our strategies for captive rearing of c’waam and koptu in our commitment to protect Endangered Species Act listed suckers in the Klamath Basin.” 

As of March 1, there were approximately 9,500 suckers from the late fall 2023 inventory at the hatchery that currently are in outdoor ponds. The fish at the hatchery range from eight months to seven years old. These fish represent age classes reared at the hatchery each successive year since 2017. The hatchery releases at least 8,000 -10,000 juvenile fish around eight inches in total length each year to various habitats within Upper Klamath Lake and its tributaries, and the fish will volitionally move to other areas in the lake throughout the year and during their life cycle. To date, the Service has stocked 71,000 juveniles two to three years old, 20,000 fingerlings about one-year-old, and 35,000 fry less than one-years of age throughout the Upper Klamath Basin. 

Michelle Jackson, Biological Science Technician, collects data on PIT tags for suckers to quantify fish in the ponds. (Ken Smith/Klamath Tribes News)

 Acquiring wild suckers from May to June is also integral to the process of rearing future stocks. “We use large fine mesh nets suspended in the river to collect wild larval suckers as they drift downstream from where they hatched in the Williamson River into Upper Klamath Lake,” said Sawyer, “and then they are transported to the hatchery and placed in rearing ponds until early fall.”  

In November or early December, the captive-reared fish are harvested from the rearing ponds to be PIT tagged (passive-integrated transponder) and then placed in winter-holding ponds. Once they reach the target size in about a year, they will be stocked. All fish being returned to the wild receive a PIT tag prior to release to track their movements in Upper Klamath Lake; a portion of the fish to be released may also receive an implanted telemetry tag for more detailed tracking.  

Yost said the most fish stocked to date has been about 20,000 fish in a calendar year, whereas in the future, the facility will produce approximately 60,000 fish annually. When the first phase of pond construction is completed this year, 40,000 to 50,000 sucker fry could be stocked by May or June. The Service is hoping to have tier-two ponds completed by the fall of this year to accommodate these increased fish stocks.  

“Additionally, this past year, we assisted with transporting and releasing adult suckers collected offsite to Upper Klamath Lake,” said Sawyer. “We moved about 30 adult fish from Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and over 300 adult fish from reservoirs behind the upper three Klamath River dams prior to their removal.”  

Mark Yost, Supervisory Fish Biologist and Fish and Wildlife Service Hatchery Manager, stands at a water outflow for a sucker pond being built. (Ken Smith/Klamath Tribes News)

To date, the Service has invested $30 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law  to support the Klamath Falls National Fish Hatchery expansion. This investment will increase rearing capacity for the suckers that are found only in the Klamath Basin and central to the culture of the Klamath Tribes. The hatchery received three $10 million installments between 2022 and 2024.  

The location of the sucker rearing program was selected because of the abundant natural geothermal water that provides a constant flow at a specific water temperature needed to raise the suckers. There was an existing aquaculture facility on the property, and the landowner, Ron Barnes, was an active part of the early years of sucker rearing. He also leased the property for the new hatchery. Barnes raises tilapia, which he sells to the general public. He got involved in c’waam and koptu work in 2007 when approached by USFWS personnel.  

“I was raising tropical fish on the geothermal farm,” he said at his tilapia indoor farm facility adjacent to the hatchery. “We were operating on a large, commercial scale, and I was raising a lot of different kinds of fish, with lots of different techniques for breeding and growing fish. And the Service knew that I was doing that; they asked me if I could help them figure out how to raise the suckerfish larvae.” 

The first collaboration between USFWS and Barnes ended in 2009, and after proving the rearing of suckers could be done successfully, they approached him again in 2014. “Five years later, they came back and said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to do this for real. Will you work with us to do it?’ And I’ve been actually working on the sucker fish ever since,” said Barnes.  

Barnes leased 25 acres to the USFWS for the current facility, and the lease agreement is for 30 years. Barnes believes that because the suckers are protected as endangered fish, it’s necessary to work to protect and enhance their populations in order to for agricultural farming to continue in the Basin.  

“The best way to get back to where people can farm and survive is to restore the sucker fish,” he said. “And that took a lot of years of working with the farming community, the Tribes, and others to put that in place.” 

Ron Barnes, operates a tilapia farm, and leased 25 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its existing sucker rearing hatchery. (Ken Smith/Klamath Tribes News)

The USFWS and Tribal sucker-rearing facilities offer the best hope for the survival of the c’waam and koptu, said Sawyer. Both species are critically endangered and found only in the Upper Klamath Basin watershed. Suckers are long-lived, slow maturing, have had no effective recruitment into the adult spawning population for over 25 years, and are now reaching the end of their life expectancy. 

When asked about the urgency of recovering a healthy sucker population in the Upper Klamath Basin, in the lake and its tributaries and rivers, Yost was firm that the time is now. “I would say the urgency is 10 years ago,” Yost said. “But this is what we’re working with right now. We want to get these fish into the adult population every year; every single fish counts.”  

“I would just say we don’t want to think about extinction as an option,” he continued. “I mean, this is a valuable resource to the landscape, both ecologically and culturally. We have to do what we can to try to prevent extinction, but changes must be made in the Upper Klamath Lake ecosystem to support these populations. We could put out beautiful fish every year, but if there are water quality problems or other conditions that caused the fish to die, you could see decades of effort disappear. 

“The hatchery is just one aspect of a bigger recovery goal. And all of our partners in the Basin have a part to play. This facility is just one piece of it. I can’t say that the hatchery is the grand solution. We’re in a state of triage at the moment. But if there weren’t hatcheries doing what they were doing, many species of fish may have already gone extinct.”