Glen Spain, the Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, is running out of adjectives to describe how bad things have gotten for the West Coast’s salmon fisheries.
Due in part to years of drought in the Klamath Basin, hundreds of miles of ocean will be completely closed to commercial fishing boats this summer.
The attitude of fishermen, Spain said, is: “Oh God, not again.”
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises the Department of Commerce rules for the ocean salmon season each year, announced Friday that no one may take Chinook salmon from the California portion of the Klamath Management Zone, which stretches from the Oregon/California border south to Horse Mountain.
The Oregon portion of the zone — from the border north to Humbug Mountain — will be severely limited during June and July, with each boat allowed to catch only 20 fish per week until a total of 300 Chinook are caught in June and 200 in July.
“That’s only a token,” Spain said. “That isn’t even enough to pay your gas bill.”
Ocean salmon fisheries operate on three-year cycles. Juvenile fish that travel from the river to the sea usually spend three years in the ocean before returning to fresh water to spawn. Jack salmon, which eagerly return after two years, provide a representative sample of how many fish have survived to make up the bulk of the following year-class.
Fishery managers used last year’s jack numbers to estimate how many salmon will be migrating from open ocean to rivers this year.
Spain said poor salmon returns on the Klamath River are largely responsible for stringent rules as far south as Monterey, Calif., and as far north as the Columbia River. That’s because salmon from the Klamath can travel hundreds of miles to the north or south beyond the KMZ. Management decisions are made based on the lowest-performing rivers.
“The weakest stock is the weakest link. The weakest stock puts the cap on how many can be caught,” Spain said. “The Klamath is the weak stock again this year, as it has been for several years. It’s a ripple effect up and down the coast.”
Because of the fishery’s three-year cycle, current woes can’t be chalked up to this year’s drought. But Spain said recreational and commercial anglers are concerned about what a disease outbreak and subsequent fish kill on the Klamath this summer would mean for future stocks.
Salmon on the Klamath River must pass through a gauntlet of warm, stable water just downstream of Iron Gate Dam, where massive colonies of annelid worms release millions of spores of C. shasta.
While the parasite occurs naturally in most river systems in the region, its levels in the Klamath can get high enough to infect as much as 90% of all juvenile fish that hatch in the summer. Scientists blame the Klamath River dams, which slow the flow of water and stabilize its naturally dynamic hydrology, allowing the worms on the riverbed to flourish.
Spain said this year isn’t the worst in terms of salmon returns, but given how few fish are headed into the river to spawn this summer, a disease outbreak could decimate the year-class that’s supposed to return in 2024.
That’s led the Yurok Tribe to cancel their commercial salmon-fishing season this year for the fifth time, according to a news release. C. shasta spore concentrations at various monitoring stations on the river have jumped up in the past two weeks, and it appears that the Bureau of Reclamation will not be able to release enough water out of Link River Dam to produce a flushing flow event intense enough to scour the worms from the river bed below Iron Gate. If spring continues to be bone-dry with no significant rainfall, there may not even be enough water to effectively dilute the spores the worms release.
“In the next few months, many juvenile salmon are expected to die from the disease if additional flows are not released to flush the pathogen out of the river,” the Yurok release read. Closing the tribe’s commercial fishery is an effort to let as many salmon spawn as possible to have a higher number of juveniles that aren’t killed by C. shasta.
The Yurok Tribe also noted that Reclamation’s temporary operating procedures, released Wednesday, did not include tribal consultation, and that disaster relief for Tribes in the Basin has been minimal.
“The Yurok Tribe is suffering significant economic damage on top of the extreme cultural and social impacts of failing fish runs,” said Frankie Myers, the tribe’s vice chairman. “While we have never and will never put a dollar value on our fishery, there is a clear disparity in the federal relief to Tribes.”
For Tribes, a lack of fish isn’t just an economic loss. Salmon are a cultural touchstone and a crucial way for tribal people to feed themselves and strengthen their communities.
“While we are sympathetic to our upstream neighbors, many Yurok families are also unable to pay basic bills due to the fishing closures. We don’t have enough salmon for our ceremonies or to feed our elders as we have since time immemorial,” said Yurok Counsel Amy Cordalis.
Spain said the KMZ closure will disproportionately affect small, family fishing operations, whose boats tend to be too small to even leave the zone. Eureka, Crescent City and Brookings, all contained within the zone, simply have no option to fish when stocks are this low. Many have given up.
“We’ve lost 80% of our boat permit holders in the California fishery since 1976,” Spain said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer boats out there. Those who don’t quit may consolidate into larger fishing conglomerates or acquire permits to fish for multiple marine species in multiple states, making the environment tougher for small-time producers. And the fleet of boats and people are aging: Fewer kids want to take on their parents’ livelihoods.
“They’ve got their lives invested in this business, and there’s no product,” Spain said.
Though PCFFA has worked to lobby the federal government for drought relief for farmers in the Upper Basin impacted by water shortages, Spain said the relief mechanism for fishermen isn’t as immediate. The Secretary of Commerce will only declare a fishery failure at the end of the season, which advocates use to ask Congress for money. That puts them on a two to three-year waiting list. But similar to Klamath Basin farmers, the relief package is never enough to fully recover the costs of a failed production season.
Despite being on opposite sides of a water tug-of-war, Spain said the parallels between farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin and fishermen beyond the mouth of the Klamath River are striking.
“We have the same problems as the small family farmers do in the Klamath Basin,” Spain said. “We’re the same kind of people: Blue-collar, work-a-day food producers, and we’re being crushed by these environmental disasters that aren’t of our making.”
Spain and the Yurok Tribe both called for sustainable, long-term solutions made outside courtrooms. Scientists expect the removal of four aging dams on the Klamath River to improve conditions for salmon, but an agreement of how an ever-dwindling supply of water should be divvied up is still needed.
“All of this points to the need to find equitable and durable solutions that result in sustainable communities from the top to the bottom of the Klamath Basin,” Myers said.