State, federal and tribal fisheries representatives last week painted a dire picture of the state of the Klamath River fall chinook run this year.

But Yurok Tribal Chair Thomas O’Rourke Sr. didn’t need data to drive home to state legislators the cultural and spiritual tie between the fish and his people. With a tribal allocation of 650 salmon this year, the Yurok Tribe canceled its commercial season for the second year in a row. Any fish that it does catch will go to the tribe’s elders and for ceremonial purposes, O’Rourke said.

“We’ve inhabited that land there near the river since time immemorial,” he said during a hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. “What happens when the fish go, what’s next? The whole ecosystem unravels. So rather than point fingers at who did this or who did that, I’d like to see these forums that bring people together to look for and to find solutions.”

Convened by State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, who both represent Del Norte County, Wednesday’s hearing “Where Have All the Salmon Gone?” addressed the low salmon runs in the Klamath River watershed, including the Trinity River, and in the Sacramento River watershed. The hearing gave tribal representatives and fishermen’s associations the opportunity to talk about the impacts to the communities dependant on salmon fishing and touched briefly on what to expect in the future.

In his opening remarks, McGuire cited a report from the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis and the nonprofit organization California Trout, which concluded that 52 percent of inland salmonid species in California could be extinct within 50 years. He noted that climate change led to an extended drought and warm ocean conditions devastating for salmon. Meanwhile, poor water allocation decisions made at the federal level killed most of the fall chinook run on the Sacramento River and led to 80 to 90 percent of Klamath River juvenile chinook being infected with disease, McGuire said.

“Our No. 1 goal of today’s hearing is to hear from all of you about these issues to raise awareness of the precarious state of our salmon fisheries,” McGuire said. “We want to be educated by all of you, along with residents, of the status, threats and success.”

The Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture was held just before California Governor Jerry Brown and Oregon Governor Katie Brown sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday, asking him to declare a fisheries disaster due to ocean salmon fishing restrictions in 2016 and 2017. McGuire and Wood, along with Congressman Jared Huffman, signed onto that request.

With a projection of 12,000 adult chinook salmon entering the Klamath River this fall, the California Fish and Game Commission has recommended no recreational fishing take place, said Kevin Shaffer, chief of fisheries branch for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has closed the ocean commercial fishery of Klamath River fall chinook from Central Oregon to Horse Mountain at the bottom end of the Klamath management zone, said Michael O’Farrell, research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. He noted that the forecasted return of chinook salmon is the lowest on record.

“It’s also lower than any other post-season estimate of ocean abundance,” O’Farrell said. “It’s quite low.”

With a watershed of 14,000 square miles, the Klamath River, along with the Columbia and Sacramento, was one of the most productive rivers in the United States, said S. Craig Tucker, natural resources policy advocate for the Karuk Tribe. Newspaper clippings from the early 1900s and oral history from local tribes speak to the density of fish on the Klamath. Scientific evidence shows that historic salmon runs were once in the millions, Tucker said.

“I just can’t overstate how biologically magnificent the Klamath is,” Tucker said. “Multiple runs of chinook, pink salmon, chum salmon, candlefish, suckers, sturgeon, lamprey. It’s all disappearing.”

Tucker blamed that on “150 years of bad decisionmaking,” including the proliferation of dams on the river, massive irrigation diversions, gold mining and unregulated groundwater pumping.

Tucker noted that a 200,000 acre irrigation project managed by the Bureau of Reclamation diverts as much as 400,000 acre feet of water from the system. An irrigation plan, reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, addresses coho salmon in the river and suckers in Upper Klamath Lake when meeting the demands of users on the project, Tucker said.

“What this means is that chinook salmon and everything else in the river has to make do with these flows that are really designed for coho salmon,” he said. “And the Karuk tribe would argue, and I think the other tribes in the basin would also argue, that consistently the United States fails to meet its trust obligations to the tribe by being coho-centric and single species management focused as opposed to focusing on the entire ecosystem.”

This “flow mismanagement,” Tucker said, has led to the proliferation of parasites and disease affecting Klamath River chinook.

According to Dave Hillemier, fisheries director of the Yurok Tribe, 81 percent of Klamath River juvenile chinook sampled in 2014 were infected with ceratonova Shasta. Ninety-one percent of fish sampled in 2015 were infected with the parasite, which is ingested by polychete worms and leads to an infection within the gut of juvenile salmon, Hillemeier said.

“It doesn’t mean that all of the fish died; some of them likely made it to the ocean and survived. But it does mean that a lot of fish died from juvenile disease in 2014 and 2015,” Hillemeier said. “Those are the juveniles that make up the age 3 and age 4 class that are projected to return, or not return, to the Klamath River this year.”

Polychete worms require a stable riverbed with low water flows and algae to thrive, Hillemeier said. He showed the legislative panel a picture of the Klamath above the Copco Dam, with clean water entering the reservoir and algae-choked water leaving. The algae typically blooms during the summer and the dead algae cells get deposited on the river bottom downstream, Hillemeier said.

“That organic matter provides food for the polychete worms,” he said. “So not only are we making great habitat for the polychete worms, but we’re also giving them a good meal.”

Hillemeier noted that in order to prevent a massive fish kill, the Bureau of Reclamation must reconsult its plans to divert water from the Klamath for irrigation if disease levels in chinook salmon exceed 49 percent.

The Yurok Tribe, Hupa Tribe and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association successfully sued the Bureau of Reclamation last summer when it failed to change its irrigation diversion plans despite that 80 to 90 percent of chinook were infected with C. Shasta.

“The judge came out with his final order and what he did he ordered the bureau to re-consult with the NMFS in regards to that 2013 opinion,” Hillemeier said. “In the interim he said we should receive at least a 6,000 cubic-feet per second flow event for 72 hours every winter to help flush out the polychete worms and their habitat. If hydrology supports it, at least every other year we should receive a de-flushing flow of 11,000 cfs and he also said there should be 50,000 acre feet set aside, so if we start to see disease problems in the spring months, that water could be used to help dilute the disease issues we have in the Klamath River.”

However it’s not just irrigation diversions that are contributing to the poor returns of fall chinook to the Klamath River this year. O’Farrell said record high ocean temperatures in 2014 through 2016 off the California coast made for poor conditions for salmon and other top ocean predators.

“It has affected salmon fisheries in 2016 and 2017,” he said. “It will likely affect fisheries into 2018 and 2019 as well.”

The high ocean temperatures were a result of “The Blob,” a persistent area of warm water that dominated the Northeast Pacific, and an extreme tropical El Niño in 2015 and 2016, O’Farrell said. This reduced the productivity of phytoplankton and zooplankton, which salmon, seabirds and marine mammals rely on. O’Farrell noted that the warm temperatures also resulted in the beaching of whales, the massive starvation and die off of California sea lions and unusual species like a mola, normally native to temperate and tropical waters, showing up in Alaska.

The warm waters have also contributed to the toxic algae bloom along the West Coast that grounded the Dungeness fleet last year, O’Farrell said.

“In 2014 you see this rapid warming in the northern part of California all the way up to the northern part of Alaska and you can also see warming on the southern California coast. It’s warmer than average all over throughout the Eastern Pacific,” he said. “By 2015, we’re reaching record temperature levels — extremely warm conditions from Alaska all the way through California down into Baja. In 2016, we’re still seeing warmer than average conditions. They’re not at the record level we saw in 2015, but they continue to be warm.”

Currently, colder temperatures appear to have returned to the Northeast Pacific Ocean, O’Farrell said. O’Farrell showed an illustration depicting a thin layer of cold water along the California coast reflecting good upwelling of nutrients and strong winds.

Another glimmer of hope for the Klamath will come from the removal of the Iron Gate Dam, Copco dams one and two and the John C. Boyle Dam, slated for 2020, Hillemeier said.

“I think we’ve got some optimism in the Klamath,” he said. “There’s still some real water management challenges that need to be addressed, but getting the dams out would be a huge landscape-level change.”

For O’Rourke’s people, however, removal of the dams doesn’t lessen the strain they face this year as a result of the canceled commercial fishery. The fishery helps tribal members make ends meet each year, put new tires on their cars, buy school clothes for their youngsters, he noted. The fishery is also important socially and spiritually.

“It bothers us not to be able to do the things that we’re instincted to do. That’s why you see such a high rate of alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse,” he said. “When you’re taken from the things you’re instinctively brought up to do and it’s gone from your life it impacts you spiritually, mentally — it goes a lot further.”