Yurok Tribe braces for worst fisheries disaster in Klamath River history

By Dan Bacher | March 25, 2017 |

As a journalist who has reported extensively on the September 2002 fish kill on the Klamath River and the struggle to restore the river and its fish by the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribes, fishing groups and environmental organizations, I find this year's collapse of the Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon population very alarming.
Yurok Fisheries Technician  Tacheenee Napooi Shorty

 examines a salmon scale. Yurok Tribe Photo. 

To put the 2017 prediction in context, consider that this year’s projected fish run is substantially smaller than the actual number of Chinook salmon that made it to the spawning grounds in 2002, when up to 60,000 fish died from disease spurred by warm, low water conditions.

The collapse is going to have dramatic implications for the region’s recreational and commercial salmon industries and even worse implications for the Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk  tribes.

“The Yurok Tribe will  have to cancel its commercial fishing season for the second year in a row. This scope of this fisheries collapse is unprecedented in Tribe’s long history on the Klamath River,” according to the Tribe. 

"This is a nightmare. I have never in my life dreamed that it could get this bad," said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. "This is devastating to our people, not only physically but emotionally. It’s saddening and hard to believe."

The collapse of the Klamath and Trinity salmon populations takes place at the same time that Governor Jerry Brown continues to promote his environmentally destructive and enormously expensive Delta Tunnels plan, the California WaterFix.

This project would not only hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, but would further imperil the struggling salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers. This is because a significant portion of water destined for export to corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley through the Delta Tunnels, is diverted to Clear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, through the Trinity River Division (TRD) of the Central Valley Project.

The TRD is composed of Trinity Dam (a large storage reservoir), Lewiston Dam (which controls the water released into Trinity River) and Clear Creek Tunnel (which transports water from Lewiston Dam into Whiskeytown Lake in the Sacramento River Basin.) 

For more information about the forecasts for this year’s Klamath and Sacramento River salmon runs, read: www.centralvalleybusinesstimes.com/

Below is the text of the press release from the Tribe:   

Collapse of Klamath River salmon is a looming disaster for Yurok people 

Salmon collapse threatens to undermine tribal economy, community, and culture 

“The Yurok Tribe is bracing for the far-reaching economic, cultural, and social challenges created by what is expected to be the most catastrophic fisheries collapse in the Klamath River’s history.  

The number of fall Chinook salmon predicted to return to the river in 2017 — approximately 11,000 fish — is the lowest on record, a result of two consecutive, juvenile fish disease outbreaks and other contributing factors. The Tribe’s 2017 allocation, set by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, will likely be about 650 fish or one fish for every 10 Tribal members. In response to the all-time low forecast, the Yurok Tribe will not have a commercial fishery for a second year in row to protect salmon stocks. This unprecedented fisheries crash will have real consequences for the Yurok people whose traditions, lives, and livelihoods are intimately connected to the Klamath River and its salmon.  

‘This is a nightmare. I have never in my life dreamed that it could get this bad,’ said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “This is devastating to our people, not only physically but emotionally. It’s saddening and hard to believe.’ 

The bleak 2017 forecast is linked to a three-punch combination, comprised of two straight years of extremely elevated juvenile fish disease levels, diminished river conditions and poor ocean health. In 2014 and 2015, when juveniles from this year’s projected return of adult salmon were rearing in the river, 81 percent and 91 percent of sampled juvenile salmon were infected by the pathogen Ceratonova shasta, a parasite that is often fatal for fish and favors warm, slow-moving water.  

In 2016, the Yurok Tribe had no commercial salmon season because there were not enough fish to meet subsistence and ceremonial needs. Selling fish, when there are so few, is antithetical to the Yurok Constitution, which mandates that the Tribe ‘manage and prudently harvest’ salmon from the Klamath River. In January 2017, the US Department of Commerce officially declared the 2016 Yurok fishery a“commercial fishery failure."  

Back-to-back years’ of extremely small salmon runs negatively affects the Yurok economy, community, and culture. For many Tribal families, the fall commercial fishery typically means having dependable food and financial security. Chinook salmon is a staple on the Yurok Reservation, where there are no grocery stores and many tribal members continue to subsist on fish and other traditionally harvested foods. The lack of salmon undermines the Tribe’s ability to pass on cultural and religious traditions to the next generation.

The loss of salmon also harms Tribal member and tribal-owned tourism businesses, which provide numerous jobs on the reservation.

‘In Yurok Country, two years without a commercial fishing season has an impact that is similar to a plant shutting down in a one-company town,’ Chairman O’Rourke said. ‘We are doing everything in our power to find ways to help our people to supplement their lost income. We have people who haven’t been able to catch up on bills for two years.’

Last week, the Yurok Tribal Council held a special work session to begin developing a strategy to make up for the loss of fish and fishing income.

‘We are in crisis mode. The Klamath is our grocery store, our church and our main highway. It’s our lifeline. We will leave no stone unturned in search of additional short-term and long-term solutions to address the most terrible fisheries disaster in the Tribe’s history,’ said Chairman O’Rourke.  

Tribe takes additional actions to protect Klamath River salmon  

In the past few months, the Tribe has won two lawsuits, both of which produced new protections for Klamath salmon. In one of the cases, the Tribe, in collaboration with other tribes and conservation groups, brought and Endangered Species Act challenge against the Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine.

Fisheries Service over the extremely high C. shasta infection rates in 2014 and 2015. On February 8, 2017 a federal district court judge agreed with the Tribe’s claim and ordered BOR to develop a strategic water release plan to combat the fish disease. Using the Tribe’s scientific recommendations, the judge granted a tactical increase in winter and spring flows designed to markedly reduce infection rates among young salmon.  

The second fish friendly decision came out of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District challenged BOR’s ability to release water from the Trinity River Division to combat fish disease — and prevent another fish kill — in the lower Klamath River.

On February, 21, 2017, a panel of three judges, in agreement with the Tribe, determined that the BOR ‘had the authority to implement the…release of Trinity River water’ to avert another fish kill.

While these victories will have real benefits for fish, the salmon runs will continue to struggle until the lower four Klamath dams, which are a primary driver of the juvenile disease problem and water quality issues, are removed. A March 2016 agreement between the Tribe, States of California and Oregon, as well as dam owner PacifiCorp and other stakeholders, planned the removal of the dams by 2020. The Tribe is working hard to ensure the dam removal process continues as planned and salmon can finally return to the upper reaches of the river. If the dams are removed it will be a major step toward the restoration of the Klamath River, however it does little to address the direct social consequences attached to the looming salmon disaster.”  

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