Native American communities are bracing for a public health crisis this year in California’s misty, rugged northwestern corner.
In the Pacific Ocean off the mouth of the Klamath River, record-low numbers of fall-run adult Chinook salmon are ready to make their annual migration up the river and its primary tributary, the Trinity River, to spawn.
The run this year is so minuscule that for the first time there will be practically no tribal fishing on the rivers.
To protect what’s left of a Klamath River salmon run decimated by California’s epic five-year drought, disease and other environmental woes, state and federal regulators last week announced they would be closing or severely limiting ocean fishing for fall-run Chinook from south of Eureka to Central Oregon. The Klamath and Trinity rivers are completely off-limits to recreational salmon anglers this fall.
The Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk tribes on the Klamath and Trinity rivers this year will only catch a few hundred fall-run fish – mostly for ceremonial purposes. Normally, the tribes’ combined catch numbers in the tens of thousands when the fall-run fishery is strongest.
The loss of the region’s largest fishing season has triggered an existential crisis for the tribes.
“When that’s gone, it’s literally like the social fabric that holds our entire community together unravels,” said Amy Cordalis of the Yurok Tribe. “We are already a very economically depressed community, and we have a lot of drug and alcohol problems, and we have a suicide crisis on the reservation. I guarantee you all that stuff is going to be even worse this year because there’s no fishery. Our very core of who we are and the core of what we do, it’s gone. It’s gone.”
Commercial fishing plays an important role in regional and tribal economies. Salmon also provide a critical food source on tribal lands. Between a third and a half of the people on North Coast Indian reservations have incomes below the federal poverty level, according to U.S. Census data.
Instead of tribe members receiving dozens of fish each to feed them throughout the year, this year tribal leaders are talking in single servings.
“It’s a staple for a lot of folks’ diet,” Jackson said. “We have high unemployment and poverty and all of those things. Salmon and subsistence food for a lot of folks is all that they have in a lot of ways.”
There are also less tangible worries.
Tribal leaders fear what will happen to their communities without the excitement, the sense of purpose and the community interactions that come with readying gear, moving into fishing camps and smoking and canning fish.
In an example of how much fishing is tied to life on the Klamath, Cordalis of the Yurok Tribe proudly points out that not only is a she a member of her tribe’s legal team, she’s also a fisherwoman. When the Chinook are running, she trades courtroom attire for rain slickers covered in fish slime, blood and scales. She hauls in fish at the mouth of the Klamath, same as other tribal anglers.
Jackson, who fishes with members of his family, said the annual fall run provides a vital connection to traditions that stretch back long before California was colonized by European settlers.
“It’s who we are. It’s how we connect to the land,” Jackson said. “It’s how we connect to a lot of the cultural aspects of the tribe.”
Experts on tribal mental health said those connections help tribe members cope with the unresolved trauma from the various atrocities that have been committed on indigenous peoples. Europeans brought fatal diseases, massacres and forced relocations. It wasn’t all that long ago that native children were taken from their families and forced to attend government boarding schools in a concerted effort to wipe away indigenous traditions, culture and language.
Experts said losing something as important as the salmon season could reopen some of those wounds.
“If there is a lack of salmon for tribes that have relied on it for millennia and whose culture is based around it, then we might very well anticipate some of these very negative mental health outcomes and behavioral health issues,” said Myra Parker, a Native American who studies tribal wellness issues at the University of Washington’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors.
If there is a bright spot to the worst salmon season on record, tribal leaders say the situation has only strengthened their resolve to have four hydroelectric dams torn down on the Klamath River and to force federal dam operators to better manage river flows to help the fish.
The Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes recently prevailed in lawsuits arguing federal officials needed to release more water into the the rivers at certain times of year to ward off disease outbreaks.
Tribal biologists say that during the drought, a disease outbreak fueled by low water levels sickened almost all of the juvenile fish in the river. The disease played a substantial role in why there so few adult fish this year, said Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s fisheries department.
On the Klamath, where four dams in California and Oregon are seen by the tribes not as just fish killers but also symbols of the subjugation of the native peoples of the West, members of the Karuk and Yurok tribes say they’re optimistic the structures will soon come down. Last year, those tribes revived a dam-removal agreement with Oregon and California and the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp.
The move came a few months after Congress let expire a hard-fought compromise reached a decade earlier by broader array of tribes, farmers and other groups that had promised habitat restoration and guaranteed Klamath Basin farmers a more reliable supply of water. The accords hinged on the removal of the four Klamath dams – three in California and one in Oregon. Congressional Republicans, philosophically opposed to removing the dams, had refused to sign off. Key parts of the agreements expired.
Leaf Hillman, natural resources manager for the Karuk Tribe, said that in spite of being shunned by Congress – and the abysmal numbers of fish this year – he believes the revived pact the parties reached last year ensures the dams will come down in his lifetime – and the fish will come back.
“These fish are resilient animals,” he said. “If we just allowed them the chance, they will do the hard work that Congress was unable or unwilling to do.”
In the shorter term, a wet winter has brought its own sense of optimism, said Annelia Hillman, a member of the Yurok Tribe who works through a federally funded grant program to try to stem the suicide crisis among her people.
“It’s definitely brought hope that we’ll have a healthy salmon run,” she said. “It almost feels like some of our prayers are manifesting with the rain.”