By LISA MOREHOUSE
November 29, 2017
The Yurok tribe has fished for salmon in the Klamath River for centuries. Salmon is essential to Yurok ceremonies, for food, and for income. But this fall, the number of Chinook swimming up the Klamath, in the Pacific Northwest, was the lowest on record, threatening the tribe's entire culture and way of life.
Erika Chavez and Jerome Nick Jr., cousins who work for the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department, are patrolling the Klamath River in the far northwest corner of California. Nick perches in the front of the boat, with Chavez at the helm as they head to the mouth of the river. "Just checking to see if there's any tribal members fishing," Chavez says. "Then we're gonna head up to the bridge to see if anyone's there."
Today, the cousins are also are volunteering to catch salmon for tribal elders — the only fishing allowed this year.
Chavez slows the boat so Nick can pull up a net they set a couple hours ago. The verdict?
"No fish," Nick says, shaking his head.
The cousins are alone on the water today. In a normal year during commercial fishing season, Nick says, "practically this whole area is nets, all the way up to the bridge. You just see corks on the water, the river's so packed with nets."
Without people on the river fishing, the salmon have a chance to travel up river to spawn. "At least that's my hope," Chavez says.
Unlike a lot of Yurok, Nick didn't grow up fishing. He moved here six years ago to get away from family drama in Oregon. Now, when he's not working the overnight shift at WalMart, he's on the water. "I work here with my cousin and she keeps me sane," he says. "She's my rock."
Chavez grew up with her family camping right here for the summer. Her grandma would make fry bread, and she and her great-grandma would watch everyone fish. Chavez started fishing when she was nine. "My partner was my auntie, she's the one that taught me, and our whole bottom of our boat was filled with fish. Everyone was catching plenty for their families. It was beautiful."
For the Yurok, a rich salmon harvest means covering the basics. "It feeds our family," Chavez says. "When commercial's here we use that money to buy our kids school clothes."
Chavez usually fishes for her grandma. "I get her 10 to 15 fish every year, so it's in her freezer for the whole year," she says. This year, "she'll have to deal with deer meat or elk meat or something."
About five minutes away in the town of Klamath, thousands of Yurok tribal members and friends gather every August for the tribe's Salmon Festival. There's a parade, and a stick game that looks to my untrained eye like a cross between wrestling and field hockey.
True to the festival's name, there's salmon cooked in the traditional Yurok way. Around the edge of a long, narrow fire pit, salmon skewered on redwood sticks form a kind of crown. Oscar Gensaw monitors the scene, wearing a T-shirt that reads: Fish Boss.
"When you first start cooking, you get those fat rings around the fish like a ring on a tree," Gensaw says. "When the fat starts dripping out of each of those rings you know that side is done."
Gensaw grew up in Klamath and has three sons and a baby daughter. "My main goal is to pass this onto my boys so one day I can be the ultimate fish boss, and be on the side when they cook," he says with a laugh. But he wants to teach them with salmon caught in the Klamath — not the fish he's cooking with today.
"These come from Alaska," he says. The tribe had to buy this salmon, for the first time in the history of the festival.
The tribe works with federal agencies every year to estimate the fall run and to decide how many salmon can be caught. So few Chinook were expected to return to spawn this year that commercial fishing was shut down to protect them. The Yurok were allowed to catch just over 600 salmon, in a tribe of 6,000.
Those low numbers are the end result of drought, disease, and a long history of habitat destruction. The Yurok place much of the blame on upstream dams that have blocked salmon from ancient spawning grounds for over a century. After years of debate and struggle, four dams are set to be removed by 2020.