Due to a relatively low fall Chinook abundance forecast in 2018, the Yurok Tribe has cancelled its commercial fishery for a third consecutive year.
“Our families, many of whom live below the poverty line, have suffered for three straight years in the absence of this much-needed source of income,” said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s General Counsel. “The fish numbers will continue to be inadequate until the Klamath Basin’s water allocation issues are addressed, its water quality improved and the dams removed.”
The salmon decline is devastating to the Yurok people, who depend on fall Chinook salmon for financial security, subsistence and ceremony. Normally this time of year, hundreds of Yurok citizens would be working on the water and on the docks at the mouth of the Klamath River. There would be individuals’ operating cranes that hoist from fishers’ boats totes full of fresh fish, which forklift drivers would then take to refrigerated trucks destined for the market. These numerous living-wage jobs are critical for the Yurok Tribe and the nearby town of Klamath, where the unemployment rate is higher than 30 percent.
“Salmon are a critical component of our local economy. When the fish numbers drop, so do the number of jobs associated with the Tribal fishery and the many businesses that cater to recreational anglers,” Cordalis said.
The forecast for the fall run of Klamath River Chinook salmon shows a modest improvement over the past two years. In 2016 and 2017, the salmon runs were the smallest on record. During those years, the allowable harvest numbers did not come close to satisfying the Tribe’s subsistence needs, let alone allowing for a commercial fishery. For example, in 2017, the Tribe’s quota amounted to less than one-tenth of fish per Yurok citizen. Instead of facilitating a small harvest, the Tribe chose to close its subsistence gill net fishery for the first time in history to allow as many fish as possible to spawn for the benefit of future generations. This year, there will be a marginal harvest of salmon for subsistence, ceremony and Tribal elders.
“We know that dam removal will happen in three years, but the Klamath River salmon population will remain in jeopardy, until the water quality and quantity issues are addressed, large-scale fish habitat restoration is accomplished and dams are removed,” Cordalis said. “We support the farmers and ranchers in the upper basin. At the same time, we must begin the difficult work of determining how we can provide more water for fish.”
In addition to degraded habitat, the Klamath River salmon also have to contend with disease. Over a three-year period between 2014 and 2016, a pathogenic organism called Ceratonova Shasta infected thousands of juvenile fish. Most of the adult salmon that returned to spawn in 2017 were rearing in the river at the height of the outbreak, when up to 91 percent of sampled fish tested positive for the deadly parasite, which thrives in slow-moving, warm water. In the same year, the Tribe successfully sued the federal government to release more water into the river, a tactic proven to measurably reduce disease infection rates.
Dams, diversions and other human-made alterations have transformed the Klamath into a river that barely resembles the one that salmon evolved in. The Yurok Tribe is actively implementing major projects to restore fish habitat on the main-stem of the Klamath and its tributaries, including the Trinity River, one of the four primary spawning streams of the basin. The Tribe is also engaged in the ongoing process to remove the lower four Klamath River dams, which are slated for decommissioning in 2021.
In concert with prudently resolving the water allocation issue, restoring habitat and dam decommissioning are the most effective actions that can be taken to rebuild the Klamath salmon population.
“Tearing down the dams is absolutely the best thing we can do for fish. We know from other dam removals in the region that salmon numbers rise when rivers are returned to a more natural state,” concluded Cordalis.