Meet the People Whose Culture and Economic Stability Are Tied to Klamath River Salmon

To understand the importance of the latest court ruling, listen to those who depend on Klamath River salmon for their way of life.

Yurok Tribe members Tseeyaba Kinney, 2, and her father, Isaac, rally outside the Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018.
Yurok Tribe members Tseeyaba Kinney, 2, and her father, Isaac, rally outside the Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018. (Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice)

This page was published 6 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Salmon in the Klamath River face better survival odds this year thanks to an April 30 court ruling. The federal district court rejected requests to undo protective measures related to river water use in what looks to be another dry year in northern California. The decision is a win not only for salmon, but for thousands of people whose livelihood, culture, and traditions are tied to the fish.

In 2017, the Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and Klamath Riverkeeper, represented by Earthjustice, joined with the Hoopa Valley Tribe in lawsuits following extremely high disease outbreaks infecting threatened juvenile coho salmon.

In prior years, infection rates from the deadly parasite C. shasta spiked among juvenile salmon populations in the Klamath River. Historically, heavy winter flows scoured this parasite from the sediment, but when river flows were low due to drought conditions or unbalanced management of the upstream Klamath irrigation project, C. shasta thrived undisturbed.

High disease rates among juvenile salmon meant low numbers of adult returning salmon; the returns of adult salmon in 2017 were so low that the Yurok Tribe closed its subsistence fishery for the first time in memory. Up and down the coast, fishery season closures devastated communities and families.

In 2017, the federal district court told federal agencies that they must rethink river flow management to better control the harmful impacts of the parasite on coho. The Court also issued an order to ensure river flows were available to flush the parasite from the riverbed at certain times of year. (Additional information about that 2017 ruling is available here.)

On April 30, 2018, the Court rejected requests to reduce the amount of water provided for salmon, confirming the science underlying the required river flows and giving the juvenile salmon a better chance of survival in 2018.

Here are just a few of the people whose way of life depends on the survival of the Klamath River salmon:

Thomas O’Rourke, Chairman of the Yurok Tribe

Thomas O’Rourke sees protecting the health of the Klamath River as a key responsibility in his role as chairman of the largest federally-recognized Indian tribe in California. He also knows that a healthy river is key to maintaining the social and economic health of the tribe itself.

“The Yurok people are a fishing people, plain and simple, and we have a cultural covenant to protect the Klamath River,” said O’Rourke. “Our creation story states that the River was made to support the Yurok people – and as long as we don’t take more than we need from it, the River will always provide for our way of life.”

For many of the 6,100 enrolled tribal members, Klamath River salmon provide not only food for the family table, but jobs in the tribe’s sustainable commercial fishery. So, in an area where unemployment and poverty are already high, the effects of two years (2016-2017) with no commercial fishing season have been devastating.

In 2017, even subsistence fishing was closed by the Tribal Council, which determined it would be more prudent for salmon survival to leave every possible fish in the river to spawn rather than catch them. O’Rourke described the closure decisions as “some of the hardest I have ever had to make, knowing that a closure means bills will go unpaid and kids may not have clothes for school.”

What may be more heart-wrenching, however, are the profound changes he has seen in tribal bonds: “Without the ability to fish and participate actively and anchor themselves to our fishing culture, our youth and tribal members are losing their path.”

“The fishing season is a great time of community,” he explained. “In the summer months, our people should be on the River fishing, on the banks fixing nets and processing fish, and at home canning or smoking fish. This is how I grew up, how I raised my kids, and who we are as a people. But without a healthy fishery, we cannot fish, and we are losing our connection to the land, the River, and each other.”

Whatever 2018 brings, the Yurok Tribe supports allowing more water to flow in the Klamath River, which improves migration conditions for threatened salmon and helps to flush out the lethal C. shasta bacteria that infects the fish in low-water years.

“We know our existence is tied to the Klamath River,” said O’Rourke, “and we plan to be here until the end of time.”

Dave Bitts, President of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

Dave Bitts fishes for salmon for a living. He works, often solo, on a 45-foot wooden boat in the Pacific Ocean. As president of the largest trade association of commercial fishermen on the West Coast, he recently spent a few days at the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) meeting in Portland, Oregon, giving input to federal regulators on the upcoming fishing seasons and restrictions.

As the PFMC hammered out its decisions, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco was set to hear the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and Klamath Basin irrigators’ challenge to a 2017 injunction. It requires BOR to hold some water in reserve in the Klamath River system, to flush into the river in case of a disease outbreak among juvenile salmon. In recent years, parasites have decimated Klamath River Coho stocks, but the BOR and the irrigators don’t want to take that precaution.

“I would hope that it’s a win for fish,” Bitts said in anticipation of the District Court ruling. “But I hope it happens on terms that also allow irrigators to survive. It is not our goal to end irrigation in the Klamath Basin. The goal is to figure out a way to take the conditions we’re dealt and move ahead — so that they can do what they do, and we can do what we do.”

“The commercial fishing picture is going to be a bit grim this year, because our bread-and-butter stock of fish that we usually try to target — the Sacramento fall chinook — is predicted to not be very abundant,” he explained. “It’s pretty tough to shape a fishery to avoid your target stock. Normally, we shape the fishery to try to avoid Klamath fish — so that we catch as many Sacramentos as possible for every Klamath fish — but this year we can’t do that. And it’s confusing, to say the least.”

This combination of factors will also cut into his livelihood. Revenue for commercial fishing families in the region in 2017 was less than 10 percent of the previous five-year average.

Bitts described the PCFFA’s two-part mission: “The first is to do whatever we can to ensure that there are robust stocks of fish available to catch, and the second is to do whatever we can to see that we have the opportunity to catch them,” he said. “We’re not exactly winning those battles.”

Amanda Ford, Interim Director at Klamath Riverkeeper

Amanda Ford is convinced that to make real progress in restoring threatened salmon stocks, it is necessary for stakeholders to set aside what she calls the “community lore” of an issue as long-running and contentious as Klamath Basin water allocations.

“People find themselves taking on certain roles because they’ve been told these stories about the Klamath for 20 years or more,” she observed. “It’s time to step out of those roles and examine the issue not as players in the story, but as thoughtful observers who can look at the big picture and say, ‘I want to call this place home.’ That’s different than looking at it solely through an economic lens.

To Ford, the coalition of tribal nations, commercial fishers and conservation groups who have united to restore the Klamath Basin illustrates how people with very different interests can come together for common objectives.

“Getting the dams down is proof of that,” Ford said. “But there’s still so much work to be done to bring the fish back to healthy population levels.”

Her organization’s goal is to undo what it believes is, according to its website, “a century of mismanagement in the Klamath Basin that has resulted in over-allocation of water and illegal water diversions; a labyrinth of canals, irrigation ditches and other water-wasting infrastructure…”

“No wonder we’re constantly picking apart every claim to that water. We’re always trying to estimate how much we have and who’s going to get it,” Ford says. “We can’t predict when or if we’ll have a drought, so we keep water in reservoirs — then we release it, but we don’t release enough, because we’re saving it for certain things, and on and on. When you look at it as a whole, you see what an unstable system it is.

“If we don’t make the choice now to be more sustainable, we’re going to be forced to — so, we might as well start planning how we’re going to do that now,” Ford continued. “I think what’s happening, especially in the upper Klamath Basin, is a really good chance to do that. Getting along doesn’t necessarily mean we all agree on everything. It means that we respect each other enough to not damage the place our future generations are going to live.”

Listen to more voices:

Chris Thomas shares stories on the people and issues who are part of Earthjustice's legal work in the Northwest.

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.