The Yurok Tribe is canceling its commercial salmon fishery for the second year in a row due to low numbers of chinook and coho predicted to return to the Klamath River.
This year’s allocation of 650 fish, set by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, is the lowest on record, said Amy Cordalis, the tribe’s general counsel. It’s a dramatic decrease from last year’s allocation, which at about 6,000, is now the second-lowest on record.
The predicted 2017 runs are smaller than the number of chinook salmon that made it to the spawning grounds in 2002 when up to 60,000 fish died from disease, according to a tribal press release.
Cordalis, who has fished on the Klamath her whole life, said this will be devastating for many of her fellow tribal members.
“I would say that the majority of our tribal members participate in the tribal commercial fishery and the commercial harvest is incredibly meaningful for all of us,” she said. “The commercial fishery is a primary source of income for a lot of people and for a lot of our tribal members it’s their only source of income. To not have that means they’re not going to work, basically.”
In addition to its commercial fishery, there will be no sport fishing on the Klamath River, Tribal Councilman Jack Mattz told Del Norters at the Chamber’s Economic Summit on March 17.
Because the number of returning salmon is so small, Cordalis said the tribe will likely cancel its subsistence harvest as well.
“We feel it’s our duty to not fish,” she said. “To let those salmon go, let the run replenish itself and try to heal.”
The reason for the dismal salmon returns are threefold: Drought conditions on the river led to low levels, poor quality water and high temperatures, Cordalis said.
This led to the proliferation of Ceratonova Shasta, a microscopic parasite that targets juvenile salmon and trout. Eighty to 90 percent of juvenile coho and chinook salmon in 2014 and 2015 were infected by the disease, Cordalis said.
“Most of the fish that get the disease die,” she said. “The run that is returning to the river now as adults are the runs from 2014 and 2015 and so we know that’s one contributing cause.”
Cordalis cited the Klamath River dams as a second reason for the low fish runs and increased water temperatures in the ocean due to climate change as a third.
“Now, the tribe has done a few things to address the river conditions,” she said. “First, we brought a lawsuit against the federal government that basically said the federal government wasn’t providing sufficient flows to flush out the disease that was causing all the salmon to die.”
In February, under a court order, the Bureau of Reclamation released water from Iron Gate Dam to help flush C. Shasta from the Klamath River system.
The Yurok Tribe, along with Pacific Corp. and the states of California and Oregon have also signed the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which aims for dam removal by 2020. Removing the dams is critical to restoring the river’s salmon runs, Cordalis said.
The unaddressed factor is the increased ocean temperatures, Cordalis said.
Last year, the tribe had no commercial salmon season because there were not enough fish to meet its ceremonial and subsistence needs, according to a Yurok Tribe press release issued last week. Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke wrote to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker outlining the devastating economic impacts his constituents will feel as a result of the canceled commercial harvest.
“In Yurok Country, two years without a commercial fishing season has an impact that is similar to a plant shutting down in a one-company town,” O’Rourke said in a written statement Friday. “We are doing everything in our power to find ways to help our people to supplement their lost income. We have people who haven’t been able to catch up on bills for two years.”
In January, Pritzker declared the 2016 fishery a disaster. This declaration provides a basis for Congress to issue relief money that would provide economic assistance.
For Cordalis, being able to fish during the summer would help her pay for college, make her rent or help get her car fixed. She said she bought a few cheap cars with the money she earned fishing. But while the fishery collapse is devastating economically, Cordalis said it’s frustrating from a cultural perspective as well.
“In large part, the poor river conditions are a result of actions the federal government has taken over the past 150 years, and we bear the brunt of those decisions,” she said. “From a cultural perspective, it just makes us sad because we’re the ones that are supposed to take care of (the river) and a lot of it is beyond our control.”