A salmon festival portends struggles on the Klamath River

The Yurok Tribe has again halted fishing during the chinook’s fall run.

 

At this year’s annual Salmon Festival on the Yurok Indian Reservation, the salmon were cooked as they are every year, skewered over an open fire, a crew of men chopping wood, preparing steaks of fish and tending the fire. The rich, fresh scent of roasting fish belied an underlying problem: The autumn celebration is dedicated to the first return of chinook salmon to the Klamath River — but this year the tribe had to import 400 pounds of king and sockeye from Alaska. “At least we didn’t have hamburgers and hot dogs like last year,” Georgiana Gensaw, who lives in Klamath Glen and attended the festival with her family, told me. Still, she said, “no one likes to serve fish with a disclaimer.”

Not far away, the main street in Klamath, California, thrummed with vendors and festivalgoers from on and off the reservation. Under a sky smudged with wildfire smoke, a parade showcased floats, a visiting marching band from Humboldt State University, and the Klamath Justice Coalition that held signs reading “Save our Salmon, Save our River” and “No amount of stalling will keep the dams from falling.”

A small girl held a hand drawn sign almost as tall as her that read “Undam the Klamath; bring the salmon home.”

“Teach ’em while they’re young!” the announcer cheered as they passed.

  • Wildfires make for a smoky backdrop as marchers kick off the 55th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival with a parade in Klamath, California, August 19.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • A young Klamath stick game player rides on his team’s float in the parade.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • Oscar Gensaw tends the fire as salmon cooks on redwood sticks — the Yurok Tribe’s traditional way of cooking salmon — while his brother, James, readies more yew wood to feed the flames. The salmon was served for the Klamath Festival luncheon, at $15 a plate.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • Raw salmon is woven onto redwood sticks, ready to cook over the open fire for the festival. Because of a shortage of salmon from the Klamath River, organizers had to purchase fish from Alaska.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • A pile of wooden skewers used to roast salmon near the fire pit. The word for salmon in Yurok is ne po y', which means "that which is eaten."

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • Boyd Ferris sings and plays a square traditional Yurok drum, during the Yurok Indian card game tournament.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • The card game involves two teams participating in a guessing game with “cards,” which are small redwood or yew wood sticks. Teams are comprised of a player and drummers and singers that try to distract their opponents.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • Players of the Klamath Salmon Festival Stick Game tournament prepare for the start of the game. One player holds the tossels in his mouth, dropping it to start the game.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • Dust from the field lingers as stick game players clamor for the tossel during the Klamath Salmon Festival Stick Game tournament.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • A young stick game player is close to tears after being tackled during the Klamath Salmon Festival Stick Game Tournament. The game is played by boys to build character and discipline.

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
  • The last float of the parade holds a sign that reads, “Purpose” and “Power.”

    Jolene Nenibah Yazzie

The Klamath River runs for 44 miles through the center of the Yurok reservation, supporting redwood stands, pine forests, eagles and bears before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Stories about the river abound in Yurok Country, home to the largest tribe in California. Each person here is a vault of oral history, filled with stories either from personal experiences or those passed down from family. In a place so tied to its riverine geography, the lack of salmon hits hard. “It’s a way to take care of your family, to go fishing,” says Ryan Ray, a councilman for the Requa District who has fished the Klamath since he was 7 years old. “That river, when you’re a kid, is basically your playground. But then when you have a family of your own, that's when it turns into providing for your family and passing that on to your kids.” 

While the Klamath was once the third-largest salmon-producing river on the nation’s West Coast, six dams built decades ago block spawning fish, and cause disease and toxic green algae to fester in warmed waters that are over-allocated to agriculture. This year, 200 miles of coastline, from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Eureka, California, have been closed completely to commercial, recreational, and, for the first time, tribal subsistence fishing of the chinook’s fall run. And next year may be the first year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designates the Klamath’s fall chinook as “overfished.”

This has been a long time coming. At one of the booths lining Klamath Boulevard at the festival, Kent Brown, formerly a photojournalist and fishing guide in Crescent City, 18 miles north, proudly displayed a photograph called “Suicide Row.” The photo, taken in 1966, shows an impossible number of boats blanketing the ocean in front of the opening to the Klamath. “People were elbow to elbow,” Brown said. “You’d have to wear a hard hat so that you didn’t get whacked on the head by a lead fishing weight.” Once, Brown saw a fisherman get hit on the head, only to swing an oar at his accidental assailant.

That imagery contrasts sharply with this year’s reality. Just across Highway 101, minutes away from the festival, the mouth of the Klamath is empty, save for the crowds of sea lions and gulls fighting over an occasional salmon. These days there are no boats, buyers or hamburger shacks to greet the returning salmon. The fate of many salmon species remains uncertain, not just for the fall run of chinook, but the spring runs on both the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

Next year’s salmon festival could see more imports of Alaskan salmon. But it also means a step toward the potential removal of four of the Klamath dams in 2020. Those removals, which are still awaiting permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Council, or FERC, would open up extensive habitat for salmon, aiding in their recovery.

In Yurok Country, the pressure for the dams to come down is building. Sitting together at a wooden burl table at the Steelhead Lodge, Sue Masten, past chair of the Yurok Tribe and former president for the National Congress for American Indians, told me she hopes the current political situation doesn’t stymie the permits. “We’re already at a critical stage,” she said. “You would think in this day and time that it wouldn’t be acceptable for a species to go extinct.”

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News.