The collapse of the Chinook salmon run threatens a native tribe's way of life

Living on Earth
Klamath River

The Yurok Tribe, which lives in Northern California near the Oregon border, is losing its way of life, as the annual run of Chinook salmon from the Pacific into the Klamath River is on the verge of collapse.

“The Klamath River is our lifeline,” says tribal chairman Thomas O’Rourke. “We have depended on this river since time immemorial. ... I grew up, born and raised, here on the Klamath River, and as a child there was a lot of salmon. We had runs, when I was a child, that don't exist here anymore.”

“Our roads are terrible here, and our roads would go out and sometimes we couldn't get out of here for weeks at a time, and if we didn't have food in jars, we did not eat,” O’Rourke continues. “We relied on the game animals — the deer and the elk — and the salmon, the eels, the steelhead, the sturgeon. These are what I grew up to know how to eat and what kept us alive, what sustained us.”

As recently as the year 2000, the tribe had a 100,000 fish allocation, which allowed them to catch fish for subsistence and for commercial purposes. After several court decisions in the 1970s and '80s, a 1993 ruling by the Department of the Interior said the Yurok Tribe and other local tribes have "the right to harvest quantities of fish on their reservation sufficient to support a moderate standard of living." The Yuork depend on a commercial fishing season, because of the lack of job opportunities in the area, O'Rourke says.

By contrast, last year the tribe had an allocation of just 6,000 fish, “which isn't even enough for one salmon per tribal member,” O’Rourke says. “This year, we have a tenth of that. ... Our tribe is the largest tribe in the state of California, with right around 6,200 tribal members, and we have 650 fish to sustain ourselves.”

“It's hard to understand my emotions and our tribal members emotions,” O’Rourke says. “All of a sudden we're told we're not going to be able to fish when we've fished all of our lives. The fish had always been there, at least in some kind of numbers. ... Our river is sick, water quality being a major issue, water management being a major issue, and so we are in the process of putting together a fix so we see what we can attain.”

The Yurok tribe has conducted studies investigating the presence of an aquatic parasite, called C. shasta, on local fish populations. The parasite spreads across the floor of the Klamath River and infects salmon when they are juveniles. “It's due, straight up, to poor water quality, poor management, flows and dams,” O’Rourke explains.

The reservoirs behind the dams “incubate this parasite,” O’Rourke explains. “It likes the warm water. It likes everything that the dams have in them — the fertilizer, the byproducts. And so, it is infested badly. The disease rate has gone sky high, and now we're starting to see the impacts of this disease that is caused pretty much by man.”

The good news is that four dams along the Klamath River are slated for removal. This will restore the river’s natural cold water flow and increase the spread of “fines,” the sedimentary material salmon need for spawning.

The Yurok has been pushing since around 2000 to have the dams removed. In 2010, PacifiCorps, the region's utility company, decided to take them down by the year 2020. “That’s big news for us, because once the dams are removed, then we can begin the real healing process for the river and we will have much better quality water,” O’Rourke says.

After un-damming the river, more must be done to restore the salmon run to its former numbers, O'Rourke says. “We were put here in the beginning as gardeners, as caretakers. You can look at the river as a garden. It’s not just the water and the salmon directly. It’s the forest; it’s everything within the ecosystem that ties together to make the river healthy.”

“When the forest is restored, then our spring waters will be restored and our ground waters will be restored,” he says. “It all works together. It's a very complex, big picture. If the river dies, we die as a people, our way of life dies, our society becomes extinct. And so, we will restore and revive our fisheries and our river.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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