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Here's How Native Knowledge Could Help Save Salmon

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Juvenile coho salmon | Photo: USFWS

California’s salmon are in trouble. In the course of their lives, they move between the Pacific Ocean’s depths and mountain streams, passing through the state’s estuaries and rivers along the way. That makes salmon uniquely sensitive to changes in every habitat they pass through. A forest clearcut or wildfire, or land clearing for suburban sprawl, can release silt into the fishes’ spawning streams. The fish are vulnerable to toxic chemicals and microplastics while they’re spending time in the ocean. Dams on the state’s rivers block the fish’s passage.

They also allow agriculture and urban water companies to remove much of the water from those rivers, leaving algae-slicked trickles and separated pools too warm for salmon to survive in. It makes no difference to the salmon whether that water ends up on a lawn in Riverside, an illegal pot grow in Humboldt County, or almond trees in the Tulare Basin: Either way, routine and excessive water diversions kill salmon.

The last 200 years have seen massive changes in most of California’s habitats outside the deserts, so it’s no surprise that California’s salmon are suffering, and that some runs have vanished entirely. Without significant changes in the way we apportion water among several dozen thirsty constituencies, that decline is likely to continue.

But there’s good news: California’s salmon can recover, if we let them. And Native land management techniques can be an important part of their recovery.

Before we examine how Native land management practices might help California’s salmon recover, it’s good to look at what the body of knowledge and skills often referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is, and what it isn’t.

It’s tempting, when talking about the suite of practices and technologies included in California Native peoples’ TEK, to think of those practices as distinct and transferable to other cultures and ways of living. As Josh Garrett-Davis points out in his piece How Forest Burning Could Have Become Federal Policy, borrowing the merely practical techniques from Native cultural burning missed much of the point.

TEK isn’t a library of techniques and technology from which modern-day land managers can pick and choose, cafeteria style, plugging one or two Native innovations into traditional Western management and always expecting the same results. Sometimes those techniques will work. Sometimes those techniques work less well when implemented outside of the cultural context they sprouted in.

Hupa man uses a dip net to fish from a Klamath River weir | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

As an example, consider the practice mentioned in a previous article in this series, in which Karuk people refrained from fishing for salmon until religious leaders completed a ten-day ritual ceremony. This practice meant that each salmon run started out with ten days of no fishing, which played a significant role in preserving the abundance of future runs.

State and federal wildlife authorities, which have the power to close fisheries, could adopt the superficial trappings of this practice, issuing regulations forbidding fishing in a spot until salmon had been passing that spot for ten days. But transplanted from the Karuk cultural context into the very different context of present-day California, such a rule might well have a very different effect. Karuk culture values both the long-term sustainability of the salmon run and the individual’s ongoing responsibility to protect that run, a responsibility that sometimes extends to the smallest details of daily life. In a culture that prizes short-term, individual gains, a 10-day delay in fishing becomes something to evade or violate. In some places, such a delay might actually make things worse for a salmon run by creating incentive to cheat.

Western minds may find the notion that TEK practices can’t necessarily be lifted wholesale from Native culture hard to grasp. But for many Native practitioners of traditional landscape management practices, those practices are about much more than managing the landscape. They can be about fulfilling the individual’s responsibility to his or her family and community. They can be about philosophical concerns that Western thinkers might compartmentalize as “religion.” They may be considered inappropriately incomplete if they aren’t accompanied by acts that might to Western minds seem entirely unrelated: singing specific songs, for example. 

The notion that Native landscape management practices can’t necessarily be copied from Native culture may be hard to grasp. But those practices are about much more than managing the landscape.

Sometimes attempts to implement TEK practices learned outside the context of the culture that created the knowledge can lead to unanticipated problems. In her 2014 report “Retaining Knowledge Sovereignty: Expanding the Application of Tribal Traditional Knowledge on Forest Lands in the Face of Climate Change,” sociologist Kari Norgaard relays an account of just such a problem recounted by Leaf Hillman, Director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources. Hillman told Norgaard of a coho salmon habitat restoration project on a Klamath River tributary. The agencies involved, who had been working with a Tribal TEK practitioner, were placing whole trees in the stream to provide resting places for the coho.

Arriving at one project location, said Hillman, the tribal practitioner knew that the agencies had made a misstep:  

[T]hey had dropped a live oak into the tributary. Intuitively, the practitioner understood that this wouldn’t work because live oak limbs and leaves are used to build fish dams due to properties that repel fish – this makes it easy to herd them.

Lacking the practitioner’s deep familiarity with Karuk culture and history, the agencies had actually made a bit of the stream inhospitable to coho.

And even in cases where an outsider’s cafeteria approach to TEK techniques might offer the desired result, such an approach runs the risk of appropriation of important aspects of Native culture that have already endured too much appropriation.

Still, there are distinct kinds of Native practices, traditional and modern, that can help salmon recover their numbers, in which relationship between cause and effect can be obvious even to untrained Western eyes. With guidance from the original owners of this intellectual property, Native and non-Native people could work together to implement TEK practices to benefit the salmon… and every other living thing in the watershed at the same time.

Cultural burning provides an excellent example.

Part of the practice of burning this mountain would be to help to call the salmon up the river. I consider fire to be the equivalent of food for our food. If we don't have fire, we don't have food for our food. It's said that smoke carries the prayers but the fire answers them, and so part of that smoke going up would shade the river, and it would cool the water temperature, and so these practices, though they're conveyed through oral histories that may be the form of a myth or a story, they actually have practical ecological purposes. — William Tripp, Deputy Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization, Karuk Tribe.
Hupa fisherman on a smoky day in 1923 | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

Tribes throughout California’s salmon country used cultural burning to maintain ecosystems for a number of purposes, and as William Tripp suggests, an abundance of salmon was definitely on that list.

The era of fire suppression has had a significant impact on salmon fisheries throughout California, though that impact may be subtler and more indirect than obvious harms like damming spawning routes and dewatering rivers. Overall, the impact of our attempts at fire suppression has meant warmer, emptier salmon streams with much less suitable spawning habitat.

One of the most immediate benefits cultural burning offers salmon is shade. Smoke from cultural burns, usually white in color, reflects sunlight efficiently. That means that temperatures beneath the smoke can drop, sometimes by several degrees. In many California river canyons, thermal inversions — in which pockets of cold air form in low spots, with warmer air above —  can hold a layer of smoke in place for days. That prolongs the cooling effect of the smoke. The notion that smoke calls the salmon might sound mystical to Western ears, but if smoke cover drops river water temperatures by a few degrees for a few days, that could indeed prompt salmon massing offshore to begin their spawning run.

Cooler water from smoke cover also slows the spread of fish pathogens like Flavobacter columnare and Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which were the two main pathogenic culprits in the massive fish kill on the Klamath River in 2002.

Fire suppression over a span of decades can also, in some cases, lead to lower water levels in the rivers draining a forest. The reason: such suppression can result in a thick growth of trees, all of them competing with one another for every available drop of soil moisture. The idea that removing trees would free up water has been seized on by logging interests seeking to leverage California’s drought, and is rather controversial. Nonetheless, cultural burning as a restoration tool may well work better than modified commercial logging to refill salmon streams in the medium- to long-term, by offering a sustainable, long-term way of preventing overgrowth of crowded, spindly trees, with little of the harm to biodiversity that drives opposition to the logging for water idea.

Cultural burning can also help reduce sedimentation of streams, which harms salmon by silting up the loose, oxygenated gravels the fish rely on for spawning. Fire-suppressed forests whose floors are primarily forest duff erode readily, often sending significant amounts of sediment downstream with each string rainstorm. After a cultural burn, the burned areas are generally “spontaneously” revegetated by wild herbs and bunchgrasses, whose matted root systems hold soils in place.  If the soil is held in place, it doesn’t wash down into the stream and smother baby salmon in their gravel beds.

Burning can benefit salmon habitat outside of spawning grounds as well. After emerging from their gravel nests, juvenile salmon eventually head downstream. If they’re lucky, they will encounter floodplains along their way. When floodplains contain seasonal standing water, they offer excellent “rearing habitat” for young salmon. Sheltering among the submerged grasses, sedges and herbaceous plants, the little fish find abundant food in the aquatic invertebrates that live there — as well as any inadvertently submerged dry land invertebrates. As they grow, their diet includes progressively larger prey such as tadpoles and small fish. In this way, young salmon take advantage of habitat that will be inaccessible to them when they reach adulthood.

California’s floodplain habitats have been drastically altered, depriving salmon and other fish of this crucial rearing habitat. Whether the floodplains are converted to farms, suburban developments or short-sighted flood control projects, that hurts the salmon’s chances of survival. 

Even if floodplains are left alone, they can become less useful to young salmon over time. Grasses and tules are crowded out by willow, elder, and other shrubs, which can grow dense enough to block seasonal floods from flowing onto floodplains. Eventually, water-tolerant trees such as sycamore begin growing above the shrubs, making the area much less valuable to young salmon.

In a 2010 study of historic cultural burning by the Plains Mewuk people along the Cosumnes River in the Central Valley,  researchers Michelle L. Stevens and Emilie M. Zelazo suggested that the annual burns conducted by the Mewuk likely created floodplain conditions that were close to optimal for salmon rearing. Regular burning prevented overgrowth of woody shrubs that might have impeded floods from reaching floodplains. It would have released nutrients into the soil that would be dissolved by floodwaters, boosting the local insect population and indirectly feeding the salmon. Burning atop peat soils might have caused those soils to oxidize in patches, creating local depressions in the soil where floodwaters would have remained longer. Reducing the amount of vegetation to suck up water and transpire it into the atmosphere would likely also have extended the floodplain’s useful season for salmon.

Floodplain along the Cosumnes River | Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Such burning also made open spaces in the floodplain where people would find it easier to catch fish, and stimulated post-burn growth of straight shoots in sedges and other plants for use in basketry and other products.

The Cosumnes’ fall run of Chinook salmon apparently went extinct in 1988, a casualty of California’s intensive reengineering of the Delta, and degradation of habitat along the river itself. That was an ironic fate for the river and its salmon. The name “Cosumnes” derives from a group of Valley Yokuts who lived near the river’s mouth, the Cosumne: A Mewuk word meaning “people of the salmon place.”

In 1998, after a (non-Native) restoration project had improved habitat along the Cosumnes, fall-run Chinook salmon came back to the river. It’s likely the new run came from Chinook spawned in other watersheds that got lost on their way home. A single-digit percentage of fish typically do this during a run in any particular river, which allows the salmon to regain territory they’ve lost.

That offers a glimmer of hope. Salmon have a tough time of it these days, their habitat under assault from several different directions. But if we manage to amend our ways to leave water in the rivers, take out dams like the four on the Klamath now slated for removal, and otherwise restore the salmon’s historic habitat, they will do the work it takes to repopulate the rivers.

And if TEK practitioners across California are part of that effort, it will likely make the salmon’s work that much easier.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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