C iting recent low salmon returns to the Klamath River as well as damage from last month’s atmospheric river, Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph James called on Congress to support a bill he said would enable the tribe to better respond to the effects of climate change.

Speaking before the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Wednesday, James asked lawmakers to support House Resolution 1312, the Yurok Lands Act of 2019 as well as fisheries disaster relief declarations.

James also asked for an increase to the base funding the tribe receives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as additional dollars for “collaborative emergency response for front-line action.” This, he said, will help the tribe increase its response to fires and floods, which have increased in frequency and severity due to climate change.

“Our tribal government operates under base funding provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a minimum shortfall of $13 million,” James said. “The initial funding level was set decades ago when the number of tribal members was 2,000 and there were fewer than 30 tribal employees. Today there are over 6,200 tribal citizens and 500 employees. The increase will help meet our critical needs.”

James also spoke before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Feb. 27.

Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents Del Norte County and the North Coast, introduced the Yurok Lands Act on Feb. 19. Under the proposed legislation, 1,229 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near the Blue Creek Watershed would be transferred into trust as the Yurok Experimental Forest. The legislation would redraw the reservation boundary to encompass the tribe’s new experimental forest and would allow the Yurok Tribe to participate in federal land management decisions within the revised reservation boundaries.

The proposed legislation also requires federal land management agencies to consult with the tribe before taking any major actions on federal land that may affect the amended reservation boundary.

HR 1312 was co-sponsored by California representatives Norma J. Torres and Tony Cardenas, Florida Congressman Darren Soto and Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, according to a Feb. 21 post on the Yurok Tribe’s Facebook page.

Noting the Yurok people’s tradition of using fire to manage their lands, James said HR 1312 will allow the tribe to protect its citizens from natural disasters and strengthen its partnership with Redwood National Park and the U.S. Forest Service.

“This bill is a key element to our response to climate change and we encourage the house to pass it,” he said. “The Yurok Tribe has culturally used fire to manage the landscape. We are integrating this knowledge into modern-day fuels management.”

James also brought up the relationship his people have with the Klamath River and its salmon runs. The tribe canceled its subsistence fall fishery in 2017 for the first time due to low fall chinook returns to the river, he said, and in 2016 salmon numbers were too few to support a commercial season.

“Stocks were so low because of high rates of fish disease killing our baby salmon,” he said, referring to the parasite C. Shasta. “The disease was caused by poor river conditions, lack of heavy flows and bad water quality on the Klamath River, which in part is created by drought from climate change. The tribe will receive a minimum amount of disaster relief funding, we’re still waiting for a response to the 2017 and (2016) disasters.”

Last year, though salmon returns were improved and Yurok citizens were able to subsistence fish, the tribe canceled its commercial fishery for the third year in a row.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Klamath River fall chinook abundance forecast is expected to be lower than last year’s forecast. This year’s abundance forecast of 274,200 adult salmon is lower than the 2018 forecast, but is still an improvement over recent years, according to information presented at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Salmon Information Meeting in Santa Rosa last week.

The escapement forecast for the number of fish actually making it into the Klamath River hasn’t been determined yet, said Chenchen Shen, an environmental scientist with the CDFW Ocean Salmon Team. Those numbers would depend on what the harvest is like, she said.

“We kind of work backwards on setting the season,” she said. “So we’ll set a goal for next year’s escapement and work backwards to see what kind of harvest would be allowed and what kind of seasons that would allow for an escapement goal for that. The ocean abundance forecast is a forecast for how many salmon are out in the ocean and available for harvest.”

Last year’s escapement into the Klamath-Trinity watershed was about 54,000 adult salmon and 8,000 age 2 fish, Shen said. Environmental scientists are still working to rebuild the chinook salmon stock after the low numbers that affected the 2016 and 2017 fisheries, she said.

At CDFW’s Salmon Information Meeting, recreational and commercial fishermen provided comments and voiced their concerns to a panel of fishery managers, scientists and industry representatives. Their comments will be taken into consideration when developing three season alternatives during the Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting currently underway in Vancouver, Washington.

Final ocean salmon seasons will be adopted during the Council’s meeting in Rohnert Park April 9-16.

The PFMC may take a conservative approach when crafting 2019 ocean salmon seasons for the Klamath River fall chinook stock and the Sacramento River fall chinook stock, according to CDFW, since both are considered overfished. Ocean abundance projections for the Sacramento River fall chinook stock is estimated at 379,600 adult salmon, an increase over the 2018 forecast, according to CDFW.

For more information about ocean sportfishing, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/fishing/ocean/%20regulations/salmon.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .