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Reclaiming the Klamath

“When I was little, my dad and my brothers would bring home fish, and it was good.”
“I always wanted to be a part of that — to bring home food for my family.”
– Ta-tes Boulby, Yurok Tribal member and fisherman
Freeing the fish from its net, Ta-tes Boulby hauled the salmon out of the water to clean.
Ta-tes is a member of the Yurok, for whom salmon fishing on Northern California’s Klamath River has been a deeply spiritual practice.
Salmon are the center of the Tribe’s culture and economy, since time immemorial.
But in recent decades, the river’s salmon population has plummeted.
For the past two years, there were so few salmon in the river that they weren’t served at the annual Klamath Salmon Festival.
Ta-tes had spent the better part of this July morning casting his net into the water and guiding it down the river without so much as a bump.
Then he and his father anchored their net straight out from the bank, watching the line of floats strung out to keep the net in position.
A dip in the bobbers might mean a fish.
One of the tens of thousands of tiny fry that set out to sea years earlier might have found its way back to the river where it was born.
But a dip might also mean algae.

Reclaiming the Klamath

Ta-tes Boulby, a member of the Yurok Tribe, fishes at the mouth of the Klamath River in Northern California. July 7, 2018.

“When I was little, my dad and my brothers would bring home fish, and it was good.”

Ta-tes Boulby walks a drift net down the mouth of the Klamath River.

“I always wanted to be a part of that — to bring home food for my family.” – Ta-tes Boulby, Yurok Tribal member and fisherman

A salmon caught in Ta-Tes Boulby’s net is pulled out of the Klamath River.

Freeing the fish from its net, Ta-tes Boulby hauled the salmon out of the water to clean.

Ta-tes is a member of the Yurok, for whom salmon fishing on Northern California’s Klamath River has been a deeply spiritual practice.

A salmon caught in Ta-Tes Boulby’s net is pulled out of the Klamath River.

Salmon are the center of the Tribe’s culture and economy, since time immemorial.

But in recent decades, the river’s salmon population has plummeted.

For the past two years, there were so few salmon in the river that they weren’t served at the annual Klamath Salmon Festival.

'Requa,' Yurok for 'mouth of the river,' is the name for where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Ta-tes had spent the better part of this July morning casting his net into the water and guiding it down the river without so much as a bump.

Aboard a skiff, Ta-tes Boulby and his father Roger Boulby prepare their set nets.

Then he and his father anchored their net straight out from the bank, watching the line of floats strung out to keep the net in position.

A dip in the bobbers might mean a fish. One of the tens of thousands of tiny fry that set out to sea years earlier might have found its way back to the river where it was born.

But a dip might also mean algae.

A set net weighed down with algae out is hauled out of the river by Ta-Tes Boulby.
Location of the Klamath.
The Klamath River flows through Oregon’s Cascade Range to California’s Pacific coast.

Every summer, massive algal outbreaks form in the Klamath River and float downstream, weighing down the nets of fishermen and turning them into obvious obstructions that salmon easily avoid.

When it dies, the algae releases deadly toxins into the water, making it unsafe for humans and animals.

The cause of the deadly algae is well known: large-scale agricultural runoff combining with unnaturally warm water. And recent decades have turned the Klamath River, once one of the highest salmon-producing rivers on the West Coast, into a breeding ground for the toxic gunk.

Algae blooms in irrigation canals in the Klamath Basin. August 19, 2018.
Toxic algae in the Klamath River near the Copco Dam. August 19, 2018.
A sign warning would-be swimmers of the toxic algae in the Klamath River above the Copco Dam.
Photos by Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Algae outbreaks near the Copco Dam in irrigation canals in the Klamath Basin on Aug. 19, 2018.

The source of the problem lies upstream, where a massive system of dams and irrigation canals called the Klamath Irrigation Project span the Klamath Basin from Southern Oregon into Northern California.

It enables farmers there to irrigate crops in a climate that otherwise couldn’t support the production.

Irrigation canals feed large-scale agricultural in the Klamath Basin.
Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Irrigation canals feed large-scale agricultural in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California.

More than 700 miles of canals, seven dams, and 28 pumping stations make up the Klamath Irrigation Project, which annually drains as much as half of the water from the Klamath River.

Irrigation wheel lines water wheat fields in the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon/Northern California using water from the Klamath River.
A sign warning would-be swimmers of the toxic algae in the Klamath River above the Copco Dam.
Photos by Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Irrigation wheel-lines use water from the Klamath River to water wheat fields in the Klamath Basin.

The lower the river gets, the harder it is for adult salmon fish to make their way upstream to spawn, and the warmer the water running in the river becomes.

The warm water, in turn, allows for proliferation of several deadly diseases that attack baby salmon — known in this stage of life as ‘smolt’ — as they attempt to migrate from their spawning grounds out to the Pacific Ocean.

Infection rates among the young salmon were especially high in 2014 and 2015, leading to abysmal returns when the baby salmon would have returned to the river as adults. The Yurok were forced to wholly cease commercial fishing in those years.

The worst-case scenario is that the water gets so low and so warm that diseases that are normally regulated by the natural cleansing flow of the river build up and explode, infecting and killing the salmon by the thousands in a “fish kill.”

Dead salmon along the Klamath River near Klamath, Calif., after a disease outbreak that killed an estimated 60,000 salmon on Oct. 1, 2002.
Joe Cavaretta / AP Photo
Dead salmon along the Klamath River on Oct. 1, 2002, near Klamath, Calif., after a disease outbreak killed an estimated 60,000 salmon.

That’s what happened in 2002.

At least 60,000 adult salmon were killed that year by a disease that infected the fishes' gills as they made their way up the river to spawn. That year, observers said that you could smell the river, the stench of rotting fish carcasses lining its banks, for miles around.

Earthjustice Video
Salmon carcasses in the aftermath of the “Klamath Fish Kill,” Sept. 2002. The Klamath was once the third largest salmon producer on the West Coast.
From the Yurok
Dave Hillemeier Yurok Fisheries Department Director

“In the past two decades, the Klamath River’s juvenile and adult salmon populations have experienced numerous disease-driven, die-offs, including the largest pre-spawn mortality event in American history.

“Excessive water diversions, nutrient loading, modified sediment budgets, and dams create the ideal ecological conditions for fish pathogens to populate the river at elevated rates.

“Indiscriminately killing thousands of chinook and threatened coho salmon, the disease organisms responsible for these recurring fish losses flourish in the river’s artificially warm, algae-filled and altered ecosystem.”

For the Yurok, the fight to protect the Klamath River and the Tribe’s way of life goes back centuries.

As the California Gold Rush brought droves of settlers to the region, unregulated mining and logging operations decimated the salmon spawning habitats and brought settlers into frequent conflict with the Tribe.

By 1855, three of every four Yurok Tribal members had been killed by disease or conflict with the settlers, and those who remained were confined to a reservation a fraction the size of their ancestral lands.

Requa: Mouth of the Klamath River from its north.
Stick game in 1926.
Klamath River: A ‘double-ender’ at the shore.
Roberts Photograph Collection / Humboldt State University Library
Clockwise from top: Requa, the mouth of the Klamath River from its north. A ‘double-ender’ at the shore of the Klamath River. Stick game in 1926.

In creating the reservation, the federal government guaranteed the Yurok’s right to the salmon in the Klamath. But in practice, the Yurok have had to fight time and again to exercise their right.

The first canal of what would become the Klamath Irrigation Project was completed in 1906.

Main Canal of the Klamath Irrigation Project under construction on June 6, 1906.
Bureau of Reclamation

Recognizing that the project had left the river’s salmon bordering on extinction, the state outlawed all commercial fishing for salmon in the Klamath in the 1930s. The Yurok were included in the ban.

It took four decades of struggle and legal action for them to win back their right to fish the river.

Then the California Supreme Court once again banned the Tribe from fishing the river in 1978, sparking armed showdowns with federal and state authorities in a highly contentious episode known as the “Klamath Salmon Wars.”

Coverage of the Klamath Salmon Wars in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 12 1978.
San Francisco Public Library
Coverage of the “Klamath Salmon Wars” in the San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 12, 1978.
From the Yurok
Joseph L. James Chairman of the Yurok Tribe

“Our Creator gave us the right to sustainably harvest salmon from the Klamath River. In return, we have a sacred duty to be a strong steward of the river and all of the life it supports.

“Since time immemorial, this reciprocal relationship has ensured the prosperity of uncountable generations of Yurok people.

“That is why we fought so hard in the Salmon Wars and will continue to fight to preserve our salmon runs for all future generations.”

Now, facing the devastation of the Klamath salmon at the hands of those that would drain the river for unsustainable agriculture, the Yurok Tribe have mobilized once again to defend their way of life.

Once again, the Yurok Tribe turned to the courts for restitution and joined forces with Earthjustice and commercial fishing families to protect the salmon. Hoopa Valley Tribe also joined the litigation.

In response to our litigation, on Feb. 8, 2017, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick found that the Bureau of Reclamation’s operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project is causing irreparable harm to the salmon and the Yurok Tribe and fishing families.

Yurok Tribe members and allies outside Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018.
Earthjustice attorneys Stephanie Tsose (center), Patti Goldman (right), and Drew Caputo outside the Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018.
Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Yurok Tribe members and allies outside Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018. Earthjustice attorney Stephanie Tsosie (center, in photo on the right) is part of the legal team representing the Tribe.
Yurok Tribe members and allies outside Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Apr. 10, 2018. Earthjustice attorney Stephanie Tsosie (center, in bottom photo) is part of the legal team representing the Tribe.
Understanding The 2017 Ruling Our legal explainer breaks down the issues behind the lawsuit.

Read the explainer.

The court ordered federal agencies to immediately take steps to protect juvenile coho salmon after several years of deadly disease outbreaks in the Klamath River.

And on Apr. 30, 2018, Judge Orrick upheld that order in the face of requests from the Klamath Basin irrigators and the Bureau to deny flows for salmon.

“We will fight any move to weaken protections for juvenile salmon from deadly parasites and lay the groundwork for safeguards that will protect the fish that sustain the Tribe,” says Stephanie Tsosie, an Earthjustice attorney who is part of the legal team representing the Yurok.

“Earthjustice is resolved to fight for the survival of Klamath salmon and stand with the Yurok Tribe and as they defend their cultural heritage and economic well-being.”

Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Yurok Tribal members explain what the Klamath River and its salmon mean to them, as they rallied outside the federal court hearing in San Francisco on Apr. 11, 2018.
Photos by Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Yurok Tribal members explain what the Klamath River and its salmon mean to them, as they rallied outside the federal court hearing in San Francisco on Apr. 11, 2018.
From the Yurok
Amy Cordalis Yurok Tribe’s General Counsel, Tribal citizen, and traditional salmon fisher

“The favorable U.S. District Court ruling required the Bureau of Reclamation to create and implement a strategy to prevent another prolific disease outbreak and the juvenile fish.

“The Yurok Tribe elected to engage in this legal action after the fish stocks plummeted to levels previously unseen, a preventable outcome stemming from improper river management.

“To protect the overall fish population, the Yurok Tribe severely restricted or completely curtailed all fishing for two consecutive seasons.”

After two years without any Klamath salmon to serve, the Yurok Tribe held its 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival in August of 2018.

Drawing thousands of visitors from surrounding native and non-native communities, the yearly event is an open invitation by the Tribe to all comers to celebrate the river’s fish.

Set beside the river in the sunny clearing of a tree-lined canyon, the event included a parade ...
... wrestling and stick ball tournaments, carnival games ...
... and countless booths of vendors selling salmon-studded handicrafts.
Wafting over the scene: the sweet smell of freshly caught Klamath salmon, roasting on spits for all comers to enjoy.
The Yurok Tribe and Earthjustice will keep fighting to protect the Klamath River salmon and to ensure that there will be salmon and to serve for festivals to come.

At Earthjustice, we’re more than just lawyers in a courtroom.

We’re a nonprofit in the business of building a better future for our planet. Our lawyers measure success in clean air, clean water, and safeguards for communities across the country.

We stand alongside our hundreds of public-interest clients at the frontlines of the fight for a better today and tomorrow. Case by case, our lawyers face off against deep-pocketed interests — and we win.

Every one of our clients gets top-tier legal representation, free of charge. Which is why your support is so crucial.

We can’t keep fighting for our planet without your help. Whether you give $5 or $500, this will be the best investment you make today.

Set beside the river in the sunny clearing of a tree-lined canyon, the event included a parade, wrestling and stick ball tournaments, carnival games, and countless booths of vendors selling salmon-studded handicrafts.

The 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival on Aug. 17, 2018.
The 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival on Aug. 17, 2018.
The 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival on Aug. 17, 2018.
Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
Scenes from the 56th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival on Aug. 17, 2018.

Wafting over the scene: the sweet smell of freshly caught Klamath salmon, roasting on spits for all comers to enjoy.

The Yurok Tribe and Earthjustice will keep fighting to protect the Klamath River salmon and to ensure that there will be Klamath River salmon and to serve for festivals to come. 

At Earthjustice, we’re more than just lawyers in a courtroom.

We’re a nonprofit in the business of building a better future for our planet. Our lawyers measure success in clean air, clean water, and safeguards for communities across the country.

We stand alongside our hundreds of public-interest clients at the frontlines of the fight for a better today and tomorrow. Case by case, our lawyers face off against deep-pocketed interests — and we win.

Every one of our clients gets top-tier legal representation, free of charge. Which is why your support is so crucial.

We can’t keep fighting for our planet without your help. Whether you give $5 or $500, this will be the best investment you make today.

The Klamath coastline.
Martin do Nascimento / Earthjustice
The Klamath coastline. The Klamath was once the third largest salmon producer on the west coast, its salmon and steelhead runs supporting commercial and recreational fishing and anchoring vibrant Native American tribes.
Map of Earthjustice offices.

Earthjustice’s Northwest Office was established in 1987. Our Seattle-based attorneys take on the region’s most critical environmental challenges, including protecting majestic old-growth forests, safeguarding Puget Sound’s orcas, saving our iconic wild salmon, and blocking massive coal export facilities and shipment of dangerous crude oil by rail. Learn more.

About this legal case: For two decades, Earthjustice attorneys have worked to save the Klamath River salmon, on behalf of the communities who depend on the salmon. Learn more.