“I got two grandsons that are 3 and 1 years old. I’ve got a baby grandson coming this fall. I’m a fourth-generation fisherman, but if we don’t save that one fish going up the river today, I won’t be able to teach them anything about our fishing,” he said. “How can I teach them how to be fishermen if there’s no fish?”
‘Like a big, dark cloud’
The downstream tribes’ problems are compounded by hydroelectric dams, separate from the irrigation project, that block the path of migrating salmon.
In most years, the tribes 200 miles to the southwest of the farmers, where the river reaches the Pacific, ask the Bureau of Reclamation to release pulses of extra water from Upper Klamath Lake. The extra flows mitigate outbreaks of a parasitic disease that proliferates when the river is low.
This year, the federal agency refused those requests, citing the drought.
Now, the parasite is killing thousands of juvenile salmon in the lower Klamath River, where the Karuk and Yurok tribes have coexisted with them for millennia. Last month, tribal fish biologists determined 97 percent of juvenile spring chinook on a critical stretch of the river were infected; recently, 63 percent of fish caught in research traps near the river’s mouth have been dead.
The die-off is devastating for people who believe they were created to safeguard the Klamath River’s salmon and who are taught that if the salmon disappear, their tribe is not far behind.