An ecological disaster is spawning a cultural crisis in the hills and valleys of the Klamath River and its tributaries. Fewer Chinook salmon returned to the Klamath to lay and fertilize their eggs last year than in any prior year on record. As a result of the poor returns, ocean fishing has been put off limits entirely. On the Klamath River, the Indian tribes that once subsisted on salmon, and for whom salmon represents the fabric of society, will be allowed to catch just several hundred fish.
“It’s scary — my wife and I were just discussing how many fish we would catch this year — two, five, or seven,” says Chook-Chook Hillman, a 32-year-old member of the Karuk tribe, whose several hundred members dwell in and around the river towns of Orleans and Happy Camp. Hillman sometimes catches 40 salmon in a season, both to feed his family and to provide fish for Karuk ceremonial uses, such as sustenance for fasting Karuk priests.
“It’s kind of my duty to catch salmon,” Hillman says. “We can’t not catch any. Our tradition says that if we don’t catch salmon, they’ll stop coming back.”
But for reasons far beyond the control of the Karuk and their downstream neighbor tribes, the Yurok and Hupa, Chinook salmon runs are dwindling on the Klamath. Diversion of the Klamath’s water for farming, more frequent and more severe droughts, and unproductive ocean conditions have crushed the river’s once enormous salmon runs — and things are currently as bad as they’ve ever been in recorded history. The river, which should run cold and clean all year, has been reduced in recent summers to a sludgy, warm cesspool, the perfect environment for a lethal parasite that attacks baby salmon. In 2014 and 2015, 80 to 90 percent of the juveniles in the middle reaches of the river were infected. Those that survived their downstream migration found little to eat in the El Niño-influenced ocean, where unusually warm waters prevented the upwelling that brings nutrients to the surface.
“And that’s what’s coming back to bite us now,” Hillman says.
Most years, anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 adult fall-run salmon lay and fertilize their eggs in the Klamath. In the fall of 2016, though, a total of 17,500 adult fish are estimated to have spawned — the lowest return on record. Next fall could be even worse. The Pacific Fishery Management Council has estimated about 11,000 Chinook salmon will return to the river to spawn.
In response to the depressed salmon population, the federal government has closed all ocean fishing in California north of Horse Mountain, near Eureka. The Yurok, who reside near the river’s mouth, also saw their subsistence quota cut to zero.
“We’re going to be allowed 650 ceremonial fish,” says Amy Cordalis, 37, a Yurok commercial fisherwoman and an attorney for the tribe.
That’s about a tenth of a salmon per person in a culture that once lived on salmon. Still, the tribes that live in the basin consider themselves to be deeply and intricately connected to salmon.
“We’re salmon people,” says Hillman, whose Karuk tribe fishes under a quasi-official system of self-regulation and has announced plans to take no more than 200 salmon this year at a length of rapids called Ishi Pishi Falls. “Our health is so closely tied to the river’s health. It’s integral to our culture.
The skills that define people in Karuk society include making nets, using them to catch salmon, filleting fish and, eventually, preparing the meat and preserving it to last the year. Hillman explains that, without salmon, these skills will die.
“Unless we just go out there just to practice and pretend to catch fish,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen. This is unprecedented.”
Cordalis says losing salmon would mark the fall of her culture.
“Take away the fish, and our social fabric starts to unravel,” she says. “People have no activity to do. They have less to eat. Their income is gone. They start looking at drugs and alcohol. We start to see a downward spiral.”
The Klamath River once supported enormous runs of Chinook salmon—possibly as many as a million spawning fish per year. The salmon provided nourishment for the Klamath’s people, as well as marine mammals, bears, raptors, racoons and even trees growing in the watershed.
But the Klamath’s salmon runs have been declining ever since European Americans first arrived in the region. In the 19th century, logging and mining caused erosion that choked spawning streams with silt. Dams built in the 20th century completely barred salmon from reaching the cold headwaters where the fish historically laid and fertilized their eggs. A large hatchery was established below the Iron Gate Dam to mitigate the devastating impacts of the barrier. Here, adult fish are captured and processed, their eggs and sperm mixed in trays, and their offspring reared in tanks and released by the millions into the river to replenish the depleted population.
Though the historically mighty spring run never rebounded after the government installed the dams, the hatchery has maintained the fall-run Chinook at fishable — and sometimes large — numbers. The average annual return since 1978, since the California Department of Fish and Game (now “Wildlife”) began keeping close count, has been 100,000 to 200,000 fish, with a record return of 313,000 salmon coming in 2012. Such times are abundant ones for tribal fishermen, who may take 50,000 salmon or more in a good season.
During such times, says Cordalis, salmon is a staple of the diet, eaten on a daily basis — often from pressure-sealed jars and cans as snack food, other times pulled from freezers, thawed and cooked for dinner.
But in 2016, the Yurok caught just 5,000 salmon, according to Dave Hillemeier, the tribe’s fisheries director. Though that was almost ten times the expected catch for 2017, last year was still a fishery disaster.
“It was the first time that we didn’t have any salmon at the salmon festival,” Hillemeier says in, referring to the 54th annual Klamath Salmon Festival last August. The festival will almost certainly be equally fish-less this year.
Agricultural practices are partly to blame for the loss of the Klamath’s salmon. When too much river water is held back behind the Iron Gate Dam, where it is stored before being pumped into fields, orchards and towns, the low flows remaining downstream may heat up in the hot summer sun, creating ideal conditions for a lethal parasite called Ceratonova shasta to thrive. C. shasta attacks and kills juvenile salmon. In 2014 and 2015, the pathogen infected between 80 and 90 percent of the juvenile Chinook born in the Klamath in 2014 and 2015. Infection, according to Hillemeier, is usually fatal.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in most years, could easily maintain the Klamath River’s flows so that more water flows out of upstream dams and through the river channel below. This can have the effect of washing away the worms that live in riverine gravel beds and which serve as a host to the salmon-killing C. shasta. However, farmers tend to object to such use of water, and the Bureau of Reclamation tends to heed their objections while dragging its feet against environmentalists’ calls to release water from reservoirs, even when millions of salmon are at risk of perishing. The Bureau’s sloppy handling of water in Lake Shasta, at the north end of the Sacramento basin, all but extinguished the endangered winter-run Chinook in 2014 and 2015, the same years that poor flows in the Klamath allowed the proliferation of C. shasta.
“They’ve literally got their hand on the river’s faucet, but they’re preventing the high flows that would protect the salmon,” Cordalis says. “The problem is, they don’t manage the river for fish. They manage it for agriculture.”
Unfavorable marine conditions, characterized by warm water and suppressed upwelling of nutrient-rich bottom water, have also played a role in the decline of salmon runs. Without wind-driven upwelling, the food web of the West Coast is disrupted, and small fish — like salmon newly emerged from their natal rivers — may easily starve.
“So we lost a lot of fish in-river [in 2014 and 2015], and when the fish that survived got to the ocean, they didn’t have much to eat,” Hillemeier says. “It was sort of a perfect storm.”
Fishery managers can’t address ocean conditions directly. However, humans do have the power to restore and maintain the health of the rivers and forests in which salmon spawn. For ages before European Americans arrived on the West Coast, in fact, tribal people had been doing more than just living with nature. They had, through certain practices, been managing it — and there has been talk in these desperate times of taking another look at Klamath tribes’ traditions of husbandry and stewardship that may have helped maintain the Klamath’s booming runs of salmon.
The idea is called traditional ecological knowledge and refers to age-old practices — sometimes religious, sometimes more pragmatic — which modern science has recognized as potentially beneficial to fish, forests and wildlife.
“These practices, though they're conveyed through oral histories in the form of a myth or a story, they actually have practical ecological purposes,” explains Bill Tripp, Deputy Director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources.
The best example of a practice that embodies traditional ecological knowledge in the Klamath basin is the ancient tribal use of prescribed fire. Cultural burning, as the practice is called, was primarily a means of improving elk and deer habitat and, in turn, making hunting easier. But these routine blazes may also have offered far reaching positive consequences for the entire ecosystem — even for salmon. For example, setting fire to mountainsides ultimately suppressed a watershed’s tree density. This meant less water drawn from the ground, and more water left for the streams where salmon spawn.
Fires, Hillman says, may also create enough smoke in the air that it acts as cloud cover, keeping temperatures down in critical streams.
“We’ve documented some temperature benefits from fire smoke,” he says. “If the river is 23 [degrees Celsius], the fish are dead, if it’s 21, they’re still alive.”
In legal arenas, the Klamath tribes are also fighting for their rivers — and lately they’ve seen a promising streak of success. They recently won two court decisions that could lead to improved flow conditions, and higher spawning success for the salmon, on the Klamath. Additionally, four of the Klamath’s six dams are slated to be dismantled and removed by 2020 — an outcome for which tribes and fishing organizations have fought for years and which will surely go down in history as one of the most dramatic reversals of river degradation. Removing the dams will allow salmon access to more than 300 miles of spawning habitat from which they’ve been blocked for decades. It will also improve river flow conditions in the Klamath to the benefit of salmon — something the Bureau of Reclamation consistently fails to do.
For Cordalis, the decline of the salmon, and the resulting fishery restrictions, is especially frustrating, since the Klamath tribes have felt the impacts of river abuse more than almost any other stakeholder while contributing little, if at all, to the conditions that directly caused the fishery disaster.
“This is the classic environmental justice issue — the poor brown people bearing the brunt of an environmental, ecological disaster,” Cordalis says. “The core of our culture, the fish, has been taken away so that another society can prosper.”