Fishermen Join Tribes, Conservation Groups, to Protect Klamath River Salmon

The Klamath River has a basic problem: too much water promised to too many people. Now salmon are dying, causing local fishermen and tribal nations to suffer.

The Klamath River has a basic problem: too much water promised to too many people. Now salmon are dying, causing local fishermen and tribal nations to suffer.
The Klamath River has a basic problem: too much water promised to too many people. Now salmon are dying, causing local fishermen and tribal nations to suffer. (Linda Tanner / CC by 2.0)

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Update: On February 21, 2017, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s ability to provide additional flow releases in California’s Trinity River to protect salmon. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit against the bureau, brought by the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District. This is a victory for commercial fishermen who rely on the fish for their livelihoods and Tribal nations who depend on salmon for sustenance.

My organization, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), recently joined with tribal nations and conservation groups to ensure that coho salmon in the Klamath River have a fighting chance for survival. Our lawsuit sought to compel the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service to use river flows to flush out a harmful salmon pathogen. It’s not the first time we’ve resorted to the federal courts to protect Klamath River salmon, but I’m hoping it may be the last.

PCFFA embodies the working commercial fishing family — the men and women who bring the ocean’s bounty of fresh wild salmon, Dungeness and rock crab, squid, herring, swordfish, shark, black cod, rockfish, albacore, sea cucumber, California halibut and flounder to the world’s tables.

Large or small vessel operator, full- or part-time, we all share a common passion for this way of life, a dedication to its future and a commitment to a sustainable resource.

I’m often asked why commercial salmon fishermen get involved in federal river and stream protection. My response is always the same: our jobs, our livelihoods, and our very community depend on salmon having healthy inland river habitat to lay eggs, grow and change from fresh water juveniles to denizens of the salty ocean. In fact, PCFFA has played an active role in salmon protection for more than 30 years.

The Klamath River has a basic problem: too much water promised to too many people. Farmers in the upper basin need its water to irrigate their crops; endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake need steady lake levels to remain healthy; and the six National Wildlife Refuges in the upper Klamath basin depend on water releases from the Klamath River for migratory birds. All those straws have left the Klamath River a trickle of its former self, and that has been disastrous for the in-river Klamath River salmon runs that we, and the lower river tribal nations, depend on.

In 2002, the Klamath River suffered the worst adult fish kill ever documented on the West Coast, with nearly 70,000 fertile adult salmon dying before they reached their spawning grounds. That year, artificially low water flows led to disastrously warm water temperatures and crowded river conditions that allowed a common fish disease known as “ich” to spread rapidly and violently. Ghosts of those lost fish lingered as subsequent generations of salmon dwindled, the years of missing spawners taking their toll. The impact ripped through the fishing community for years, resulting in 700 miles of emergency ocean salmon fishery closures in 2006 that left most of the West Coast salmon fleet unemployed. Federal disaster relief did little to cushion the blow.

Successful court action led by PCFFA ultimately left more water in the river for fish and gave fishermen a seat at the table in future water management decisions. For most of the next decade, PCFFA worked to reach agreement around removal of the Klamath River dams that block hundreds of miles of potential salmon habitat and cause serious water quality problems. Those discussions led to the current plan to remove the Klamath dams starting in 2020.

But we also need to keep salmon healthy as we work toward dam removal. Years of low flows have allowed an organism known as C. shasta to dramatically increase in the river, infecting almost 90 percent of sampled juvenile salmon in 2014 and 2015. Still pools below Iron Gate Dam host many young fish, exposing them to the parasite while at the same time weakening their immune systems due to warmer water temperatures. The impact of two years of heavy juvenile mortality will be felt for years, as fewer young fish mean fewer adult spawners two to three years in the future. The recent order from Judge Orrick gives us the best chance to flush C. shasta out of the river system, protecting this year’s juveniles and many future fish. Working together with tribal and federal agency scientists, we can protect salmon for the future for all of us.

We have to stay focused on long-term solutions. Dam removal plans are moving forward, but they can’t increase the water supply. We need to come to grips with our water over-appropriation problems. Neither farmers, nor fishermen, nor tribes, nor National Wildlife Refuges are served when they are forced every year to battle over limited Klamath water supplies.

PCFFA looks forward to resuming work with other Klamath basin stakeholders to rebalance the water systems so that enough water is always left in the river and its salmon runs—once the third largest in the continental U.S.—and the many communities those salmon support, can once again prosper.

Glen H. Spain is the Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.