Coping with fish kill

October 16, 2002 12:00 am
Thomas Williams, 10, said 20 members of his family just returned from Klamath Falls where they joined a protest last week against the Bureau of Reclamation for reducing water flows. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Thomas Williams, 10, said 20 members of his family just returned from Klamath Falls where they joined a protest last week against the Bureau of Reclamation for reducing water flows. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Laura Brown

Triplicate staff writer

The effects of the die-off of fall-run chinook, coho and steelhead has reverberated throughout the fishing- and tourist-based economy of the town of Klamath. At Margaret Keating School, where 70 percent of the student body is Native American, the anger and confusion over why the fish died is echoing through the classrooms.

In Mr. Nicholson's fourth- and fifth-grade class, students are eager to share their thoughts and feelings about the fish kill that claimed an estimated 30,000 fish, primarily chinook salmon, in the Klamath River last month.

"My mom has been telling me that farmers have been taking lots of water and my family doesn't like that. We don't like to go down there (the river) anymore because it stinks," said Amber Gensaw, 10, who lives above the river with her family.

Jim McQuillen, the principal of Margaret Keating School and a Yurok tribal member, said that fishing is synonymous with the cultural identity of the Yurok people who have lived and fished on the Klamath River since "the beginning of time." He said many view the fish kill as an attack against their culture.

The fall run of salmon is an important source of food for the dinner table as well as a source of income for many Yurok families. For families who are struggling to pay the rent, the closure of the tribal fisheries comes at the worst time of the year. Students who worked the river or in local businesses to save money for school clothes and shoes are going without this year.

"We have many families currently stressed due to high unemployment. The fish kill has added to these families' situations," said McQuillen.

For many of these children, the river is their playground. Fishing the river by their relatives' sides since they were old enough to walk, they know the life cycle and needs of a salmon better than most adults. They know that fish need cold water to thrive and that if they don't get to their spawning grounds, there won't be fish in years to come. They also know that the coho salmon could potentially become endangered.

In the classroom, teachers – some of whom are Yurok – have been listening to the concerns of the children.

William Einman, a first- and second-grade teacher, said he wasn't sure how to approach the subject with his 7- and 8-year-old students. During story time, when a dog dies in a book read by Einman, many students raised the issue of the fish kill themselves. "The kids are definitely aware of it. It's on their minds," said Einman.

Kindergarten teacher, Elsie Wilder, a Yurok tribal member said she is usually busy canning salmon for winter storage this time of year. In her life, she has watched the decline of the candlefish, a once-abundant staple of the Yurok tribe. She is afraid salmon will disappear within her son's generation.

"My concern is that if we're not able to subsistence fish, my culture is leaving. Fish are a huge part of our culture. A lot of people eat beef, we eat salmon, deer and elk that way," said Wilder. This week the topic of discussion in Wilder's class is the smell of the river. "Everybody here eats fish. They're all affected. It's not just the Yurok kids."

Keeping up with current events is part of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum in Becky George's classroom, and recently her students' local surroundings have been making headlines.

"There's a lot of anger. There are a lot of feelings that things could have been prevented and the powers-that-be are not sympathetic to the needs of our community. That's their home. It's the lifeblood of the area," said George.

Now George's classroom is asking what they can do to help. There are plans to write letters to government officials.

Thomas Williams, 10, said 20 members of his family just returned from Klamath Falls, Ore., where they joined a protest last week against the Bureau of Reclamation for reducing river flows. He said he usually goes to the river during the summer months with his dad and sister to catch fish. Williams said the fish kill is "bad because that's usually how our family makes a living."

Morgan Clayburn has a solution that is a reflection of his family's views.

"I think they should just get rid of the dam and move the farmers somewhere else."