August 25, 2005
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Environmental Reporting - Blue Ribbon Finalist
A stalled chinook season migrates upriver
On the cover: Sonny Downs, a Yurok subsistence fisherman, gets
ready to clean his fish.
Photo by Heidi Walters
story and photos by HEIDI WALTERS
DOWN AT THE REQUA DOCK ON THE
KLAMATH RIVER, NOT FAR from the mouth, the river is suspended
in morning's usual foggy grip, with the sun a vague notion above
the low-slung shrouds of moisture. But it's just a little too
quiet down here, considering the time of year. It's mid-August,
and the fall run of Klamath Chinook has begun.
The fish are coming in from
the sea to the estuary, where they'll acclimate before making
their freshwater run up the river to spawn. Normally, when that
happens, this place is gull-squawking, fish-hawking central,
as Yurok commercial fishers sell their day's catch. But the number
of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha returning this fall is alarmingly
low, the commercial fishery is closed and the dock is dead.
Oh, some fishing boats ply the
river: One of them tears past, toward the mouth, leaving a muffled
yelp of "Yah hoo hoo!" hanging in the gray stillness;
a few other boats, their sport-fishing occupants holding poles
over boat sides, putter downstream to hover in the estuary and
hope for the big one, or anyone, to bite. Halfway down the dock,
two men mess with a boat.
Dave Hillemeier [photo below],
manager of the Yurok Tribe's fisheries department, is also here,
leaning on a concrete wall and staring out at the river, while
a couple of his fisheries technicians get ready to shove off
in their boat. They're also headed for the mouth. There, other
Yurok tribal members are subsistence fishing with gill nets from
the tip of the narrow sand spit that juts into the dizzying zone
where ocean waves curl head-on into spilling river. On the spit,
the technicians will conduct a round of monitoring chores, including
net checks every two hours to count and weigh catches and take
scale samples, and measurements of live salmon they'll net themselves
and release after lodging sensors deep in their throats to track
them and record river conditions.
A man drives down to the dock
and parks, gets out, and walks over to Hillemeier. "Any
possibility to buy some pieces of fish?" he asks, in halting
English. Hillemeier replies: "I don't think so. The allocation
is so low, there's not any for sale this year. There's no commercial
fishing." The man looks baffled, wanders over to talk to
the two men working on their boat, then leaves empty-handed.
"See that structure over
there?" Hillemeier says, pointing to an orange and gray
metal trailer. "That's a big ice machine. Last year this
time, there were trucks all over the place with ice and fish.
People were swarming all over here, buying fish. It's a bit of
a different story this year."
Last year, biologists noticed
a deficit in the ranks of the wild stock of Klamath Chinook that
would head upriver to spawn in 2005. That led to a plunge in
quotas, and lengthy closures, along 800 miles of Oregon-California
coast for this summer's commercial and sport ocean fisheries.
Ocean fishers were particularly frustrated, because the Sacramento
run of salmon are in abundance this year. But because the ocean
is managed to protect the weakest stock -- this year, the Klamath
salmon -- and because salmon all mix together in the ocean, fishing
where the Klamath stock might be was shut down.
The Klamath normally is the
second most important salmon producer in California. The Pacific
Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations has estimated the
financial loss from the closed fishery could amount to $100 million.
Now the economic impact is spreading upstream, with the migrating
Tommy Chew, who runs his dad's
Little Ray's Tackle shop in Klamath Glen, says the sport-fishing
quota for the river this year is 680 Chinook that can be kept.
(Catch-and-release fishing does not count.) "A good quota
would be 2,500," he says. It's hitting the tackle shop hard.
"At this time last year, I made $7,000 more than I have
now. I've been averaging $30 a day, and mostly it's kids buying
candy. Normally we'd average $300 to $500 a day."
River guides likewise may find
themselves idle this year. But the hardest hit are the Yurok,
for whom Chinook salmon are not only a financial staple of life,
but also a cultural one. "The Yurok tribal allocation is
roughly 6,400 fish this year," says Hillemeier. "A
better scenario would be 60,000 to 80,000. Last year it was about
25,000. This year, there's not enough for subsistence. That's
why there's no commercial fishing." The 4,000-member tribe
has come to rely on up to half a million dollars in yearly revenues
from commercial fishing. Kids, tribal members say, even catch
fish to pay for their school clothes.
-- -- --
Traditionally, the Yurok, Hoopa,
Karuk and the Klamath Tribes have relied upon fish living in
the Klamath River system, including tributaries. Dams built along
the upper stretch of river between 1903 and 1962 cut off more
than 300 miles from spring Chinook that spawned in the upper
river. Those stocks have died out, leaving upper basin tribes
without a traditional food source. Today, the Yurok and Hoopa
tribes have a right to 50 percent of the harvestable surplus
of Chinook in the Lower Klamath. Of that, the Yurok have a right
to 85 percent of the fish -- their reservation encompasses 44
miles of the mainstem of the river, a mile on either side, from
the ocean up.
"With that fishing right
comes a right to an adequate amount of water in the river,"
says Hillemeier. "Because without water, that fishing right
Hillemeier blames the low Klamath
Chinook count on a massive juvenile fish die off in the river
in the spring of 2002, caused by low flows released to the river
from Iron Gate Dam. Iron Gate, 190 miles from the mouth, is the
lowest of six dams on the main stem of the Klamath, and is the
main regulator of water flows to the lower river. It and four
other hydroelectric dams on the mainstem, and a seventh on Fall
Creek, are owned and operated by the Portland-based PacifiCorp,
a division of the British company ScottishPower. A sixth is used
for regulating water levels in Upper Klamath Lake, where threatened
sucker fish -- a staple of the upstream Klamath tribes -- live.
That lake is the main reservoir from which Klamath Basin irrigators
have diverted Klamath River water since the Bureau of Reclamation
built the Link River Dam, in 1921, to bring water to the desert
and boost the livelihoods of war veterans. PacifiCorp also generates
electricity at that dam.
The upper basin's agricultural
community has received much of the blame for downstream fishery
troubles. But many biologists blame the hydroelectric plants
for exacerbating the river's water quality problems. The 2002
juvenile die-off happened before the huge fish kill later that
fall, when an estimated 65,000 adult Chinook died in the river
as they tried to reach their spawning grounds. It was the West's
largest adult fish kill in recorded history, and the nation took
note. California Fish and Game biologists and others concluded
that low flows, too-warm river temperatures, and disease killed
the fish. Few people, however, have heard much about the juvenile
fish kill -- or others that have happened almost every spring
in recent years. This fall, among the 3- and 4-year-old salmon
returning to the river to spawn, it's the 4 year olds -- 2002's
babies -- that appear to be largely missing in action, says Hillemeier.
"They experienced low flows
during the spring of 2002," he says. Low flows strand the
edgewater environment -- where the river normally inundates vegetation
along the banks and the water is calm, sheltered, and food-richhigh
above the water line, out of reach of the baby salmon emerging
from the gravel. That leaves them exposed to swift currents and
predators, and more vulnerable to disease, says Hillemeier. "That
means they die in the river as fry, or they aren't in good enough
condition when they get to the ocean. You don't get good survival
from that brood of fish."
The one positive, albeit ironic,
note is that, because of the scant numbers of this year's fall
Chinook, and because Reclamation has agreed to allow more water
to spill over Iron Gate to protect the federally listed threatened
coho salmon that also spawns in the river, the adult Chinook
may fare better than they did in 2002 because they'll have more
room and likely cooler water.
-- -- --
Another car pulls up to the
dock, and Joe Pitt gets out and comes over to talk to Hillemeier.
Pitt, 76 with a cheerful face and glittery blue eyes, has lived
in Klamath since he was 6 years old and has ocean fished for
crab and salmon ever since. When he can catch salmon, he smokes
some and gives the rest to "Indian friends, older family
friends who live up there" on the reservation. He didn't
go out for salmon this year, though, because he'd have had to
go below Ft. Bragg, where the fishery's been open, and he says
it's too far from home.
"I think it's these dams,"
he says. "If you have stagnant waters, you have moss [algae
blooms] forming on the water."
Hillemeier adds, "We want
to get the dams out of the river. One, it would return the fish
to their homes above the dams. And two, it would improve the
As Hillemeier and
Pitt gab, tribal member Arnie Nova shows up. He's one of the
tribe's lead fisheries techs, and he and the monitoring crews
have been making the rounds on three sections of river every
day between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m., when fishing's allowed, except
when it's closed from 9 a.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Wednesday. They
talk to sport and Yurok commercial fishers, ask what they've
caught, and collect data.
[Photo at left:
Dave Hillemeier and Joe Pitt]
It makes for long days. Nova
and Hillemeier get into a boat and head to the mouth, and on
the way Nova tells two stories. Story one: "Yesterday, an
osprey caught a fish, and then an eagle tried to take it. At
one point the eagle was flying upside down." Story two:
"And then a seal stole a steelhead salmon from someone's
hands." The second story would be revisited later that day,
-- -- --
At the spit it's much livelier,
although Hillemeier says it would be even more of scene in a
good year. Several Yurok members are dropping nets in the river
side of the spit. The nets drift down and wrap around the point
where the ocean pours in, entangling salmon rushing into the
estuary. Fishers extricate the salmon, slice them open and clean
them, and lay them in ice boxes in their boats. A train of brown
pelicans circles overhead. On the spit, gulls crowd in, screeching
and dashing in to snatch up the pink frilly circlets of accordion-like
gills and other offal the fishers toss aside as they clean their
The tribal fisheries techs --
including Troy Osburne, 12, and Wesley Spino, 17, who are interns
in the Yurok's youth fisheries program -- are netting and tagging
live fish and monitoring the fishers' catches. Seventy-year-old
Yurok fisherman Corky Simms
[photo at left] walks up from the
swirling tip of the spit to talk. "I've been fishing here
for maybe 64 years," he says. "I was born alongside
the river and I don't even have a birth certificate. We used
canoes, then. Oh, there was a lot of fish. And I remember the
years when there was no fish." For 54 years, from 1934,
the Yurok were largely banned from commercial and gillnet fishing.
After the "fishing wars" in the mid-1980s, they regained
their fishing right. They now manage their own fishery -- the
fisheries department is the Yurok's biggest department.
[Photo at right:
Troy Osburne, 12, and Wasley Spino, 17, netting and tagging fish.]
"See that pink buoy over
there?" asks Simms. "That has a sensor, and that buoy
counts the fish as they go by. On up the river, we have three
sections of river, and every section has its sensors, and its
quota. Everything is regulated, all our catches are monitored.
This year, all we're doing is subsistence fishing. We don't have
no smoked fish, no canned fish, no frozen fish. It's gonna be
At his boat, moored at the spit,
Yurok tribal member Sonny Downs, 42, is cleaning his catch. "I'm
here to take care of my family, to put away food for the winter,"
he says. "So far, it's looking pretty grim -- for the sportsmen,
for the Indians, for everybody.
-- -- --
About midday, Arnie Nova drives
the jet boat upriver, out of the choppy, tide-influenced low
end and into the flatter water, out of the coastal fog and into
the sunshine. He notes where the riverbank is coated in bright
green algae, and points out several osprey nestshaystack clumps
high in the tips of trees. Nova says the riverbanks used to be
lined with 300-foot tall redwoods that shaded the river, which
ran deep. Decades of timber cuts, however, depleted the trees
and sent extra sediment into the river. (The Yurok now are working
with Simpson Timber Co. on recovering the watershed.) He steers
the boat into a deep, clear blue water hole on the north side
of the river and throws an anchor in the sand. This is where
Blue Creek comes in, the cleanest, coldest tributary on the reservation.
"Back in the [adult] fish kill, there was 400 to 500 fish
in here, because the water's cooler," says Nova. But the
fish ended up overcrowding, the water temperature rose, and they
succumbed to parasites and bacteria and died. "They were
lined up along the bank here, three feet wide."
But mostly Blue Creek's a good
swimming hole, protected from the river current, and Nova has
brought the Yurok elementary school's garden club up here for
a swim and to collect native plants. The kids spill into the
water, laughing, and Nova talks about his monitoring work on
the river. It requires him to approach people who are fishing
in the river and estuary, and ask them how many fish they've
"This is a really stressful
job," he says. "We're conservationists, right? And
we're trying to bring the fish back. But some of the tribal members
don't understand why we have to close down the fishery. They
get angry at me."
Later in the afternoon, Nova
drops the garden club off at a dock and continues downriver toward
the mouth. He sees two men fishing with poles from a rock, and
shouts: "You guys catch anything?" "No,"
they reply. One of them, Joe Vosburg of Eureka, says he's been
fishing from this rock for 15 years, mostly with happy results
until recently. "Last year was horrible,"
he says. "And it's bad now. Usually I catch a lot of fish
at this rock, lots of 'em."
Farther down, near the estuary,
with the fog hunkering down and the tide coming in, Nova spies
Yurok tribal council member Walt Lara Jr. [photo below] and
his fishing partner in a boat with two guests they've taken out
sport fishing. They've been out all day, with no bites. Lara,
holding a pole in the water, says he's been involved in fisheries
restoration activities for 30 years now. But he says all the
plans, studies, chatter and millions of dollars "thrown
at" the sick river from every direction have come to naught,
because there's no follow-through from the feds. He'd like to
sit down with President Bush, he says, and tell him what he's
seen, and how the river is starved for water.
[Photo at left:
Sonny Downs cleaning his catch.]
He might also tell him about
the strange fish-stealing-seal incident that Nova recounted earlier
in the day. Turns out, Lara was there.
"I fish a lot," Lara
Jr. says. "And right now is the time when the fish should
be rolling out here. We should have seals barking in here. And
we wouldn't have seals coming in here and stealing that little
boy's fish off his linethat tells you something." Delton
Sanders, 12, fishing from Lara's boat with his grandpa Jim Parker,
smiles and recounts how he saw the seal swimming toward him before
it lunged for his fish. "I was scared," he says. Lara
Jr. continues: "We haven't seen any fish rolling and jumping.
I used to fish here in my younger days, and they'd jump all over
the place. In every school of fish, there's a percentage of biters,
a percentage of jumpers, a percentage of rollers, and a percentage
of fish that doesn't do anything. If you're not seeing any jumping,
rolling, and biting, that means they're not coming in the river
and filling in the holes this year."
-- -- --
Away from the river, in offices
flung up and down the coast and far inland, for decades now,
people have been trying to figure out what to do about the sick
Klamath River system. Zeke Grader, a San Francisco-based attorney
for the PCFFA trade association, says recent efforts at cooperation
between upstream farmers and downstream fishers need to progress.
"They need to look at taking some more land out of agricultural
production in the upper basin," Grader says. "So far,
there has been no action on the upper river. I mean, there've
been some Kumbaya sessions. But, a lot of the leaders up there
are in big-time denial. They're not going to be able to survive
even if they have all the water in the world -- they're doing
potatoes, they're up against global competition. They'll probably
have to look into other crops, specialty crops, maybe organics.
They need to figure a way to have a higher value market, and
reduce their demands on water."
The "Kumbaya sessions"
are meetings held by the Bureau of Reclamation, which brought
in consultant Robert Chadwick to guide discussions between river
adversaries. Reclamation, under mandate following a biological
opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service, is forming
a basin-wide Conservation Implementation Program, which it hopes
will draw all river users together to seek funds for restoring
the river system, says Reclamation's Christine Karas, who has
developed similar forums in other river basins and was brought
in to develop the program. But Jill Geist, Humboldt County 5th
District Supervisor, is critical of the process. "We haven't
seen or heard anything from the Bureau of Reclamation on the
CIP since last February," she says. The program offers no
concrete source of funding, and has no authority, she says. "It's
basically a defense of the status quo, which is `do nothing.'"
Geist says the county would prefer that funding for the Klamath
Restoration Plan be extended. That 20-year plan, part of the
Klamath Act, sunsets next year. Under it, $20 million was allotted
over its lifespan to agencies for studies and restoration projects.
Greg Addington, with the Klamath
Water Users Association, which represents upstream farmers, agrees
more cooperation is needed. "I think that we actually haven't
done enough of the talking with the downstream users, with the
tribes in particular," he says. He says the Yuroks and some
farmers have chatted informally, which he thinks is more productive
than the Bureau's "Chadwick" sessions. Still, he's
not impressed with "some of the fishing groups," such
as the PCFFA. "They're very aggressive and they've got lawyers
that do a lot of talking." It bothers him when people "make
judgments, such as `low-value crop.' It's a judgment on how someone
makes a living," he says. "It doesn't matter what they're
growing up here. It's a free country, you can grow what you want."
Addington points to where his
water users have spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars
restoring wetlands," and says the KWUA doesn't agree that
farm water diversions are killing the Klamath River's fish. "Some
people would say it's an old and naturally dying system,"
he says. "You can't go in there and say, man has caused
Downstream, that's mostly what
people are saying. Their noise is amplified lately. PacifiCorp's
Klamath dam licenses expire next year, and the company is undergoing
re-licensing. Why not just decommission the dams, ask people
like Grader, and Bill Kier, an independent fisheries biologist
who helped draft the Klamath Restoration Plan. Kier says that
plan has been ineffective because the bigger problems haven't
been dealt with.
"The plan identifies a
number of water quality problems," says Kier. "And
nobody likes to hear it, but the solution to pollution is still
dilution. The problems then are the problems now. Have the water
quality problems gone away? No. You get these great brown globs
of yucky brown mud -- dead algae. The algae is fed by nutrients
from irrigation. The phenomenon is called nutrient spiraling,
and what appears to be happening is that the reservoirs, instead
of acting as sinks, as the company contends -- this is the `river
cleaning' fantasy that [PacifiCorp] has put out there -- the
opposite is happening. The reservoirs appear to be increasing
the amount of nitrogen products in the water. And we have actually
seen data that shows nitrogen at such high levels they would
be producing free ammonia. And free ammonia is absolutely lethal
to juvenile salmon. And this phenomenon is happening mid-summer,
when the baby salmon should be making their way down the river."
He calls the hydroelectric dams
"old, crappy, diseconomic, useless junk" that "are
exacerbating the water quality problems and contributing to the
decline of the salmon resource."
The hydroelectric dams produce
151 megawatts annually, about 1 percent of the energy PacifiCorp
produces at all of its generating plants. PacifiCorp has said
in the past that while it didn't include providing fish passage
in its re-licensing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission, it isn't off the table. Meanwhile, the hydro project
is being bought by another company, MidAmerican, and so far no
one's heard that it plans on tearing down the dams.
And until they go down, says
Kier, no amount of studies, chats, or collaboration will achieve
what many would most like to see: fish swimming through cold,
clean water, all the way up to upper Klamath Lake. The tourism
dollars alone from such a restored fishery could reap millions,
"For me," says Kier,
turning philosophical, "salmon are a transcendent symbol.
They're the ultimate integrator between land and sea. For me,
if you take care of the salmon, the salmon will take care of
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