Gill nets yielding bounty of chinook on Klamath River
The Yurok people and their culture have been inseparable from the Klamath River for centuries, a fact demonstrated today by the tribe spending millions of dollars annually on river stewardship.
Del Norte Triplicate/Adam Spencer Commercial salmon fishermen check their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River just below Requa Inn.
At this time of year, those efforts pay off as thousands of chinook salmon are caught in the Klamath estuary by hundreds of Yurok tribal fishermen taking part in the commercial salmon harvest.
The Yurok Tribe’s commercial quota is 105,500 adult chinook salmon this season based on what is projected to be the largest fall run on the Klamath since 1978.
The bustling boat launch at Requa near the mouth of the river demonstrates the capacity of the commercial fishery with two cranes lifting buckets full of hundreds of pounds of salmon from fishermen’s boats. Fork lifts load plastic totes packed with ice and salmon onto semi-trucks before they gingerly drive down the narrow road leading back to the highway.
“When it gets busy both of those cranes are going nonstop,” said Dave Hillemeier, who has been managing the tribe’s commercial fishery for 17 years as the program manager of the Yurok fisheries department. He sees the work done by his department and the tribe as a whole for watershed restoration, habitat improvement and the efforts to remove dams as directly related to the commercial fishery.
“This is kind of what it’s all about it,” Hillemeier said Tuesday, standing above the bustling boat launch at Requa near the mouth of the Klamath. “There are a lot of cultural reasons behind having a healthy fishery as well, but this is definitely one of the primary benefits, for the tribal members to be able to reap the benefits of a large run like this.”
Hillemeier’s team collects real-time information on the harvest by touring the estuary with a boat to count the nets employed at any given time and interviewing people as they bring in their catch in order to monitor how fast the harvest is approaching the quota.
As of Wednesday, after nine full fishing days, roughly 32,000 chinook salmon had been harvested. Almost 8,000 salmon were harvested last Friday alone — the most productive day thus far — and the run has yet to peak, Hillemeier said.
‘This is our per capita’
Tribal member Robert Ray works on both sides of the harvest, counting nets for the fisheries department from a boat during the night shift, and fishing for himself during the day to supplement the income for his big family. He puts in 15-hour days for his six kids, including a daughter in college.
“This is what everyone looks forward to every year, a commercial season,” Ray said, comparing the right to commercial fish with money that other tribes receive from gaming. “This is our per capita. We don’t get casino money so this is what we do.”
There are more than 600 certified commercial tribal fishermen, and many fish as much as possible when the estuary is open for netting from 10 a.m. to midnight (closed Wednesday and Thursday).
“It’s a lot of work for the Yurok people, but they’re ready to pull their sleeves up and get it done in order to use the resource we have,” said Dewey Jones, who has been participating in the commercial harvest for 19 years, since he was 10 years old.
On Tuesday, fishermen were getting $2.50 per pound from the two fish buyers stationed adjacent to the Requa boat launch, down from an opening price of $2.75. Those buyers have to submit a bid to the tribe to lease the lucrative spots.
Buyers farther from the boat launch typically pay more, including a buyer in the Crescent City Harbor that pays $1 more per pound.
American-Canadian Fisheries, one of the buyers awarded the Requa bid this year, has tried to set up shop at Requa every year since 1996, said manager Gil Orient, because the quality of salmon is almost unmatched. “There’s no comparison” outside of Alaska, he said.
“These fish have a reputation up and down the West Coast of being extremely high-quality fish,” Hillemeier said.
Management of the fishery has changed over the years. As late as 1996, salmon were sold “in the round,” meaning not gutted or cleaned and without much ice used immediately after catching, he said.
By the 2001 season, the tribe had invested in ice machines at Requa capable of pumping out 10 tons of ice per day.
“At that time the tribe implemented some pretty stringent quality control measures to make sure that all the fish that leave with the Yurok name are of high quality,” Hillemeier said.
To become certified commercial fishermen, tribal members are required to watch a 15-minute video outlining the criteria in the tribe’s harvest management plan, including the proper way to handle the salmon. They must sign a contract that says they will follow the criteria and face penalties if they don’t.
“Don’t forget to put ice in the fish’s belly,” the video said, ending with, “Now go get some ice and go fishing!”
Netting at the estuary
Gill nets used for the tribal harvest hang from buoys floating on the surface of the water down 25-40 feet. They cannot be longer than 100 feet, and no commercial fishing is allowed outside of the estuary boundaries, which include the U.S. Highway 101 bridge and a boundary 100 yards upriver from the mouth. The highest quality fish are in the estuary and the commercial quality goes down the longer they are in the river, Hillemeier said.
When salmon swim into the mesh nets, their gills prevent them from swimming back out.
Some non-tribal sport anglers often complain that tribes are allowed to gill net since it is outlawed in state rivers outside of reservations.
The tribe argues that tribal harvest is part of the ecosystem after hundreds of years of gill netting. The nets that are now made of mono-filament line are very similar to nets used hundreds of years ago made from iris twine, said Yurok Tribe spokesman Matt Mais.
“Tribal members have been gill netting forever” on the Klamath,” Hillemeier said.
“We get an allocation like every other fishery and it’s up to the tribe to figure out how to harvest that allocation,” Hillemeier said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re trolling or gill netting as long as you’re taking from that allocation.”
That allocation is higher this year than it has been in decades, once again thanks to the largest projection since 1978.
“I don’t know how precise the projection is, but the fact that they’ve projected a lot of fish seems to be accurate,” said Hillemeier.
There was concern that the large run could create a repeat of the 2002 fish kill when tens of thousands of salmon died from the combination of large run and low, warm water conditions, but efforts to curb a repeat seem to have worked.
The extra water release from the Lewiston dam on the Trinity River provided by the Bureau of Reclamation “has definitely helped out conditions on the lower Klamath,” Hillemeier said.
From a tribal fishermen with 19 years’ experience like Jones, the projections seem on the nose:
“There are a lot of fish in there, I can tell you that.”