On the cover North Coast Journal

August 25, 2005

IN THE NEWS  |  DIRT  |   

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Environmental Reporting - Blue Ribbon Finalist

KLAMATH DOLDRUMS A stalled chinook season migrates upriver [photo of Sonny Dows, a Yurok subsistence fisherman]
KLAMATH DOLDRUMS 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.Photo of spit fishermen

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."Photo of Dave Hillermeier, manager of the Yurok Tribe's fisheries

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 Chinook.

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 is meaningless."

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 water quality."

Photo of Dave Hillemeier and Joe PittAs 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, upriver.

-- -- --

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 deaPhoto of Corky Simms watching fish netting and taggingfeningly 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 catch.

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 depaPhoto of youths netting and tagging fishrtment.

[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 slim."

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 caught.

"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 Photo of Sonny Downs cleaning his fish catchyear 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.Photo of Walt Lara Jr. fishing

"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 this."

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, says Kier.

"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 you."

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