Record low Klamath salmon run spurs Tribal, commercial and sport fishery closures

By Dan Bacher | 

Fishery scientists are expecting a record low return of fall-run Chinook salmon to the Klamath River this year, due to a combination of several years of drought, water diversions in the Klamath Basin and to the Sacramento River and the continued presence of the PacifiCorp dams.

Tribal, commercial and recreational fishermen are currently waiting for the decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) on the fishing seasons at its meeting in Sacramento on Monday, April 10, but the outlook is dismal, based on the low Klamath salmon estimates. 

The pre-season numbers released by Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service in March estimate only 54,200 Klamath River fall Chinook adults and 230,700 Sacramento River fall Chinook adults will be in the ocean this year.

Commercial fishermen and families and sport anglers are facing an “unmitigated disaster” in the Klamath Management Zone (KMZ) of the ocean extending from Humbug Mountain, Oregon to Horse Mountain, California, according to Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. 

This disaster takes place as Governor Jerry Brown continues to move forward with a Delta Tunnels project that will not only hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, but will further imperil the salmon and steelhead fisheries of the Klamath and Trinity rivers. 

Due to the poor status of Klamath River fall Chinook this year, none of the three alternatives proposed by the Council provide for any Chinook–directed fisheries in the Klamath Management Zone, although one alternative does include a mark-selective coho fishery in the Oregon portion of the zone and extending north to Cape Falcon.   
“California and Oregon are facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Oppenheim, in a press teleconference on April 6. “We are facing a closure in the Klamath Management Zone and we also expect to see restricted seasons in Northern and Central California. This follows a disastrous salmon season last year.” 

“Even if Klamath stocks were healthier, we would likely see fishing restrictions due to below average returns to California’s Central Valley. Salmon, the West’s original water users, are paying the highest price for this tragic water management failure,” stated Oppenheim.

Yurok Tribe: worst year in history for Klamath salmon

For the Yurok Tribe, who have fished the Klamath for thousands of years, the looming closure will be also be an “unprecedented disaster,” according to Amy Cordalis, the Tribe’s General Counsel, a Yurok Tribe member and fisherwoman.  Her family lives and fishes in Requa at the mouth of the Klamath River.

““This is the worst year in history for Klamath salmon,” said Cordalis. “There is no mystery as to why. The effects of an unprecedented drought were exacerbated by dams and diversions. This year, Yurok, Karuk and Hupa people will have little to no salmon for the first time in history. Although the fish are important economically, they are more important as an irreplaceable part of our identity as people who care for the river.”  

“Since time immemorial we have practiced a fishing way of life. We have never ever relocated, but we are still on our river and continue our fisheries way of life,” she stated.

The Tribe will have no commercial fishing season this year, a fishery that many tribal members depend on for their income. And the subsistence allocation is 650 fish, the lowest allocation ever. 

“That’s only 650 fish for a total of 6100 members of the tribe,” Cordalis said “Last year, it was 5,800 fish, the second lowest ever allocation. People in the community are devastated. They are coming to the tribal offices in shock. People are asking how they are going to feed their families and how they are going to keep the lights on.”

“When the fish leave our area, we are back home smoking and canning fish and talking about the great times we had,” said Cordalis. “None of this will happen this year. The great sense of community won’t be there. Our community is also suffering from already high unemployment and an 80 percent poverty rate. This is a social justice and is survival issue.”  

“Our cultural covenant requires that we never take more than we can sustainably harvest,” Cordalis said. “Because there are not enough fish, we won’t have a commercial harvest this year. We won’t have income to support our families. Our people left with no other options.”

She emphasized, “Closing the fishery same for us as closing the plant in one plant town. It will be a hard time for us.” 

Cordallis said this year’s fishery failure is the result of “200 years of water development and consumptive use in the Klamath Basin,” noting that the PacifCorp dams were built without fish ladders. The dams also cause poor water quality, spurring big toxic blue algae blooms and creating warm water conditions that allow fish diseases to spread. 

The fish disease C. Shasta killed 81 percent of juvenile salmon on the Klamath and 90 percent in 2015 , resulting in this year’s record low numbers of fish. “These are sampled Chinook juveniles that are a surrogate to indicate rates of coho salmon (ESA) listed species) infection,” noted Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe. “You need a surrogate species as there are too few coho to sample.” 

Lawsuits spur plan to increase river flows to mitigate disease

Although the outlook for 2017 is grim, Tribal, commercial and recreational fishermen say they have some cause for optimism, due to the current efforts to restore the river and the heavy snow and rain that fell in the Klamath and Trinity watersheds this season. 

Water managers are currently developing a plan to increase river flows to mitigate for fish disease outbreaks. This plan is the result of successful lawsuits by the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Yurok Tribe, PCFFA, the Klamath Riverkeeper and Earthjustice.

On February 8, a U.S. District Court judge ordered federal agencies to immediately take steps to protect juvenile coho salmon after several years of deadly disease outbreaks in the Klamath River. Klamath River coho salmon are listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Hoopa Valley Tribe, who initiated the lawsuit, lauded the decision challenging the government’s inaction during two years of high disease rates and poor adult salmon returns.  

“The Hoopa Valley Tribe depends on salmon for our livelihood and will not stand idle while our people’s culture is jeopardized,” said Ryan Jackson, Chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “This decision is a win for the Tribe and all communities that depend on Klamath salmon.” 

The Hoopa Valley Tribe will also be greatly impacted by the looming salmon season restrictions, particularly  during their biannual white deer skin dance and world renewal ceremonies that will begin in August, according to Mike Orcutt, the Tribe’s Fisheries Director.

“Approximately on 130 fish will available for the  3400 members of the Tribe,” said Orcutt. “Not to have salmon for people participating in our ceremonies will be unfathomable.” 

Dam removal plan moves forward

Tucker also said Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Energy, operating as PacifiCorp, has proposed “an ambitious plan” to remove the lower four Klamath River Dams, “a product of years of negotiations with basin stakeholders along with state and federal agencies." Many consider this the largest salmon restoration project in history.    

Tribal fishery biologists said the high, flushing flows this year point to more promising salmon runs in future years. Mike Belchick, Yurok fishery biologist, said the trouble with the fishery we’re now seeing is largely the result of the disease problem the juvenile salmon migrating out of the river and its tributaries encountered in 2014 and 2015.

“It’s too early to determine what happen with disease this year," Belchik said. “With this year's large winter flows, we have hope for the future, althought it doesn’t help with the salmon run this year.” 

Cordallis called on the entire nation to join the Yurok Tribe in supporting the restoration of the Klamath — and emphasized that this year’s salmon collapse impacts people throughout the Klamath watershed and in coastal communities through Oregon and California. 

She said she is more hopeful than ever over dam removal, scheduled to occur in 2020. “According to the agreement, environmentalists, Tribes and fishermen will facilitate dam removal by going through the FERC process. I am so encouraged to have all the partners committed to dam removal now," she said. 

Cordalis also said that river advocates must review and update the “whole set of laws" that determine how the operations system on the river is managed. She pointed out the need for comprehensive river management on an ecosystem basis.  

Mike Orcutt emphasized, “In addition to the dam removal that we have supported through the FERC process, there’s major water quality and quantity ssues we need to address in the areas where the dams will be removed.” 

Leaf Hillman, Natural Resources Director for the Karuk Tribe, said PacifiCorp’s dam removal plan gives him hope for the future.

“They know that dam removal is in the best economic interests of their shareholders and customers. And I know dam removal is in the best interests of the Karuk Tribe.” 

“We’re confident that dams will come down,” concluded Cordalis. “We’ve always been on the Klamath and we will continue to be there. This fishery disaster will come to pass.”   

Tucker said the dam removal plan requires no federal spending. PacifiCorp is contributing $200 million and California has committed up to $250 million in additional funds as needed. The Tribes and anglers are hopeful that the Trump administration will support dam removal, as did both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The dam removal proposal is now awaiting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). A 2012 Environmental Impact Statement and other studies have concluded that Klamath dam removal is safe and will dramatically benefit Klamath fisheries and water quality, according to Tucker.  

This will be last generation of salmon fishermen — unless salmon runs improve

Meanwhile, Oppenheim said commercial fishermen, along with Tribes, are working with state and federal agencies to take all of the steps necessary for securing disaster relief.

“We will hunker down and make this work,” he noted. “Commercial fishermen are a resilient bunch and will get support from local communities. Commercial fishermen will be defaulting on loans, selling boats, and taking other measures to get by. We need change and we need it now.”

Recreational anglers and charter boat skippers, particularly in the Klamath Management Zone, will also be impacted by the looming closures.  

“This announcement means we’re going to have to fish for other species in order to make a living, that’s a fact,” said Tim Klassen, captain of the charter fishing vessel Reel Steel, fishing out of Eureka. “The long term health of salmon is more important than just one season. We’ve been through this before and it hurts, but if we don’t do something soon to improve our salmon runs, we will be the last generation of salmon fishermen in California.” 
For the latest information on the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decision on the salmon fishing seasons, go to:  

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