The Yurok Tribe’s largest salmon quota, which produced one of the most lucrative commercial harvests the tribe has ever seen, is wrapping up smoothly.
Tribal fisherman Terry McCovey hoists his catch in the quiet stretch of the Klamath River near Cats RV park. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
By Monday morning, Yurok fishermen’s commercial gill nets will be removed for the season, and the Klamath River estuary will return to its quiet, lazy-river state — interrupted only by excited sport anglers crowding the mouth of the river during dropping tides.
As of Tuesday, hundreds of tribal fishermen had harvested nearly 79,000 chinook salmon, raking in close to $3 million, and there are still three more days of fishing before the commercial season completely closes.
Catching was slow for the last week on the Klamath. The week before, fishermen had to take caution when toxic blue-green algae blooms came close to the estuary. Even as the commercial harvest winds down, the Klamath will continue to welcome more ocean salmon in what is projected to be the largest return of chinook spawners since 1978.
The crowd thins out
The Requa boat launch was markedly less crowded this week than at the beginning of the commercial harvest as many out-of-town tribal fishermen made their buck, packed up camp and headed back to homes often hundreds of miles away.
The bucks, after all, came quick this year. For almost two weeks, tribal fishermen have been getting $4 per pound for their salmon after a price squabble between the two main buyers stationed at the Requa boat launch pushed up the price.
The catch was slower on Monday and Tuesday as well.
“Everyone should be rocking ‘em right now, but it’s kind of slowed down,” said Thomas Willson, a tribal fisherman who has been participating in the fishery for decades.
Why the slowdown?
“It’s just nature,” Willson reckoned. “Sometimes runs are late; sometimes they’re early. Everything seems to be getting later and later.”
Coho salmon (federally- and state-listed as a threatened species) typically enter the river later, right around this time of year, which is why the Yurok Fisheries Department closes the commercial season on Sept. 23 for “conservation reasons,” said fisheries director Dave Hillemeier.
Gil Orient, manager of American-Canadian Fisheries, sat idly Tuesday in a small tent overlooking his company’s crane stationed at Requa. With less fishing pressure and a slower run, he was surprised to see a fisherman bring in a load of salmon before noon.
In the first part of the season, Orient was buying around 40,000 pounds of salmon per day. On Monday, he bought only 17,000 pounds of fish.
Warnings in a time of plenty
Despite the sedated tone, in recent weeks, the Yurokâ€ˆFisheries Department has been busy spending some time warning fishermen about the possible presence of blue-green algae blooms, which were present at high enough levels in the Klamath Glen to post warnings to avoid contact with the river.
Yurok Tribal fishermen speed around the estuary to check nets in the waning days of the commercial harvest. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
The tribe cited multiple, separate studies by the Yurok and Karuk tTribes and Pacificorp that demonstrated that blue-green algae has not shown up in salmon meat, but skin contact for fishermen can be a health concern.
“That’s one of the reasons we look forward to getting those dams out of the river,” Hillemeier said, citing the conventional wisdom that the dams’ reservoirs act as warm breeding grounds for the toxic bacteria.
(A state advisory cited by the Triplicate last week incorrectly advised anglers to limit consumption of Klamath River fish. State officials said the press release should have said that fishermen should limit consumption of Klamath reservoir fish.)
Good returns upriver
Hillemeier said the fishery has been rather consistent throughout the harvest, aside from a few lulls, bringing the commercial harvest close to the 105,500 salmon that the tribe was allocated.
The fact that the tribe is a fair amount under the allocation could be a good thing, since “that projection is not a 100 percent by any means,” said Hillemeier, who is confident that many spawners made it upriver to sustain the run even with a bountiful harvest.
Data collected from other reaches of the Klamath Basin seem to be validating his estimate. As of Sept. 18, there have been 4,154 salmon counted on the Shasta River — more than four times the highest count to that date since 2001.
“I think it directly relates to this large projected run. It’s still too early to tell; they could just be running early,” said Wade Sinnen, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
‘A beautiful concept’
The tempo has gotten is even slower farther upriver in the estuary, closer to the Highway 101 bridge where Terry McCovey prefers to fish.
McCovey remembers fishing the Klamath during the “salmon wars” of the 1970s, when tribal members and federal agents literally took shots at each other over Indians’ rights to fish the river. Nowadays even the anxiety at a busy Requa is too much for him. He prefers to fish and set up camp at Cats RV Park near the old Klamath townsite.
Richie Dean Jr. left, and Stanley McCovey III keep an eye on their nets near Cats RV park on Tuesday. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
“I like fishing and I like being on the river — I don’t need all that tension,” he said.
Fishing further up the estuary has its price. McCovey must row down to Requa to have his fish checked and pay his $3 per fish use fee that the tribe collects for each salmon sold. The use fee funds the Fisheries Department’s monitoring of the river, enforcement of regulations, and the tribe’s industrial ice machines that pump out 10 tons per day of free ice for tribal fishermen.
McCovey often finds himself rowing back to camp in the dark since the fishing has been best around 11 p.m. — just before the fishery closes at midnight. On Monday night, he caught 22 fish in 45 minutes around 11 p.m.
“Having my hunting and fishing rights on this river means everything to me,” McCovey said. He reflected on the stories passed down to him about how all different tribes on the Klamath River used to respond to the beginning of the salmon runs.
When the first salmon of the season appeared on the Salmon River, a Karuk Indian would run down to the closest downriver village to spread the message. That village in turn would send another runner to relay the message to the next village until it finally reached Requa, McCovey said. The Indians at Requa wouldn’t start fishing until they had received word that salmon had arrived at the Salmon River, he said.
“When you think about it, it’s a beautiful concept; they were looking out for their upriver people,” he said.