US declares West Coast tribal salmon fishery disaster

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For generations and generations, the Yurok Tribe have relied on the Chinook salmon of the Klamath River in Northern California for ceremonial, sustenance, and commercial gain.

But in 2019, less than 40% of the usual number of salmon returned to the river, leading to what Tribal Chairman Joseph L. James called a “total failure” of that year’s stock.

The Yurok tribe is not alone. Between 2014 and 2019, tribal salmon fishing also failed in Washington state rivers.

On September 1, the Commerce Department declared fishing disasters for several West Coast tribes and allocated $17.4 million in disaster relief in response. The aid will be used to shore up everything from habitat restoration to commercial and subsistence fishers.

West coast salmon have been stressed for years. After spawning in freshwater rivers, fish migrate to the ocean to feed, then return year after year to spawn. Despite management and conservation efforts, in some rivers the number of fish returns is decreasing or uncertain.

California’s Endangered Salmon

Researchers blame everything from pollution to river dams preventing access to spawning grounds to rising ocean temperatures linked to climate change.

Some stocks of Chinook salmon have been designated as threatened and endangered in their riverine habitats. Others are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although fishing treaties vary, many reserve tribal rights to fish in “customary and customary” locations or in waters associated with reservations. Tribes and bands are also involved in fisheries management and conservation.

Fisheries failures not only cut off valuable sources of income for tribal entities, but also disrupt traditional uses and even household food sources. The Upper Skagit Tribe, which catches coho and sockeye salmon in the Upper Skagit River before it empties into Puget Sound, considers fishing “a way of life,” Jennifer R. Washington wrote, then president of the tribe in 2019. “With little or no fish available to harvest due to their low abundance, the whole community suffers. The tribe will receive about $300,000 in disaster relief, according to the Commerce Department.

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