Salmon in the Klamath River in the United States were once abundant and the fish were an integral part of the ways of life of local indigenous people. The river supported rich habitats and spawning grounds to Chinook and Coho salmon along hundreds of kilometers in clean river water.
But then came the dams. The river began to be dammed to produce electricity and as many as eight dams were built on the river. In tandem, the number of salmon dramatically decreased.
“When I was growing up, there were still decent salmon runs,” recalls says Amy Cordalis, a member of the Yurok, California’s largest indigenous tribe. “On good nights, you could catch 100, 200 fish. We loved it. That’s when you felt like you were like being your best Yurok self: you were doing what the creator made you for,” she adds.
“You were going to be able to fill up your smokehouse and your freezer and not only just yours, but your grandma’s, your aunties’, your cousins’ – all the people you cared about, you could give them fish so that they had food,” Cordalis explains.
Adult salmon once migrated from the Pacific Ocean and swam up to spawn on gravel beds in the Klamath River. The fish helped feed native tribes who settled in the area for millennia. Salmon were not only an important source of protein for locals but were also part of the tribes’ cultures. In addition, the fish provided local fishermen and fisherwomen with steady sources of income for generations.
“My great uncle and my grandma and my great grandparents and, I’m sure, their great grandparents: they were all fishermen. That’s just what they did – they fished and it was out of necessity to support their families. And it’s because that’s what we’ve always done and we’ve never known another life,” says Cordalis.
The eight hydroelectric dams were built on the Klamath between the early 1900s and 1962. The dams have broken up the river into shorter stretches, thereby fragmenting fish habitats and spawning grounds for migrating fish like salmon. The dams’ reservoirs have also led to a build-up of toxic algae, which flourish in the nutrient-rich pools of stagnant water.
“In sufficient quantities it becomes harmful to human health. In the autumn, water containing toxic algae is released and sent downstream towards the Klamath’s mouth where the Yurok reservation is,” the BBC explains.
In recent years, the population of salmon has plummeted, which is endangering the traditional ways of life for native tribes. Their halcyon days of salmon abundance are long gone. “It’s like the crumbling of the way that we live. It’s the crumbling of the way that we teach our kids,” Cordalis says. “It’s the crumbling of how we interact with that natural environment, because there’s no fish.”
The only hope for salmon to return to the Klamath River, which runs though southern Oregon and northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, is to remove some of those river-blocking dams because they have interfered with the breeding habits of the fish, experts say.
“Anytime you put a dam on a river, it always has profound effects: it chops the river into two pieces,” explains Michael Belchick, the Yurok tribe’s senior fisheries biologist.
At the moment only in the fall can Chinook salmon be fished by local people. Meanwhile, the number of Chinook and Coho salmon continues to decline in spring. Coho salmon is listed as threatened under California’s Endangered Species Acts.
Encouragingly, however, plans are underway to demolish the lowest four dams starting in 2023. If the project is approved, it will reopen currently blocked river passages to migrating fish for hundreds of kilometers.
“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and a new era,” stresses Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok tribe. “To me, this is who we are, to have a free-flowing river just as those who have come before us,” he adds. “Our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.”
The salmon will have a long way to go (both literally and figuratively) before they can rebound, but local people are holding out hope that the fish will be able to do just that given some help.
“[The situation] is bleak, but I want to have hope that with dam removal and with all the prayers that we’ve been sending up all these years, salmon could come back. If we just give them a chance, they will,” says Chook-Chook Hillman, a member of Karuk tribe who has been fighting for the removal of the dams.
“If you provide a good place for salmon, they’ll always come home,” Hillman says.
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