Thousands of fish were found dead in the Spokane River near Long Lake Dam

Thousands of fish were found dead in the Spokane River near Long Lake Dam

When Tom McClellan stopped at a park near Long Lake Dam last Wednesday to let his dog run, he saw something unusual in the water: lots of dead fish, their white bellies pointing toward the sky.

“We could sit there and literally watch it float,” McClellan said.

McClellan, who worked at Long Lake Dam for 30 years before retiring in 2022, told people at the dam what he saw. He later posted a video on Facebook showing schools of small fish swimming along the beach.

Fisheries biologists estimate that thousands of fish died, making the incident the largest fish kill in this part of the Spokane River system in recent memory.

The cause remains a mystery, and fisheries officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Spokane Tribe are trying to solve the problem.

Most of the fish were found near Long Lake Dam, which impounds the Spokane River west of Tomtom, Chris Donnelly, fish program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s eastern region, said Monday morning. Their bodies were found above and below the dam.

He said officials have ruled out the most common factor in the fish kills — low dissolved oxygen levels — and that they are awaiting test results to see if illness, physical injury or any type of contaminant is the culprit.

“The whole thing is confusing,” Donnelly said.

Rebecca Cook, a biologist with the Spokane Tribe’s Department of Fisheries, said they have “some preliminary ideas” based on blisters observed on some fish, but need confirmation from laboratory tests before naming a specific cause.

Samples were sent to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. Cook said she expects to get results this week.

It seems that death is over for now. Cook said a team of people who went to the lake on Monday did not find any new dead fish.

The killing came a little more than a month after an oily sheen was noticed on the river. The source was identified as mineral oil leaking from Inland Empire Paper Co., according to the Department of Ecology. Inland Empire Paper Co. It is owned by Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

Environmental officials have said the mineral oil is not considered harmful to people or aquatic organisms, and Donnelly said Monday there does not appear to be a clear connection between this spill and the dead fish.

No dead fish were found along the Spokane River between the Millwood plant and Nine Mile Dam after the spill, and the fish seen last week were many miles downstream.

“I don’t think we can relate it to that,” Donnelly said.

Long Lake was rising in the days leading up to the death. Avista Utilities has finished its annual drawdown of the reservoir to allow it to fill, and melting snow and rain have swollen the river and high water levels behind the reservoir.

That’s normal this time of year, according to Jared Webley, an Avista spokesman. He said the company hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary this winter, has conducted annual haul-and-fill operations for years and “has never killed this type of fish before.”

There were reports of dead fish in the same area in late December, but the Fish and Wildlife Service had not received any additional reports of dead fish until last week, Donnelly said.

Most of the fish affected were walleye and perch, with some salmon species such as whitefish and trout mixed in. The bulk of them were near Long Lake Dam, Donnelly said, and a few were reported at Little Falls Dam — the next impoundment. Downstream.

Donnelly added that the affected fish were mostly 3 years old or younger, meaning they were generally not the size that anglers could catch and take home. However, if enough young fish are killed, it “will definitely affect future harvest,” he said.

Julie Schultz, a water ranger with Spokane Riverkeeper, said the killing of a fish of this size has not happened in recent memory.

“We have no idea why this happened,” Schultz said. “What we do know is that this looks like a pretty big event.”

Riverkeeper staff went to Long Lake and took a water sample after learning of reports of dead fish. They noticed murky, turbid water with some debris, but that alone provides no explanation for the murder, Schultz said.

“It’s a lot of fish and this is rare,” Schultz said. “If that indicates there is a problem in our river, we need to track that down and find out.”

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