his fall, the number of chinook salmon making their way from the ocean up the Klamath River in the far northwest corner of California is the lowest on record. That’s devastating news for the Yurok tribe, which has lived along and fished the Klamath for centuries. Salmon is integral to their entire culture and way of life, essential to Yurok ceremonies, for food, and for income.
Cousins Erika Chavez and Jerome Nick Jr. both work for the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department, and they’re patrolling the Klamath where the river flows into the Pacific Ocean.
Nick perches in the front of the boat, with Chavez at the helm as we head to the mouth of the river.
“Just checking to see if there’s any tribal members fishing,” Chavez says. “Gonna head up to the bridge to see if anyone’s there.”
Yurok use gillnets. In good years and bad, the cousins do net counts, stopping by boats, measuring and weighing any fish caught.
Today, Chavez and Nick are also volunteering, catching salmon for tribal elders. It’s the only fishing allowed this year. Chavez slows the boat so Nick can pull up a net they set a couple of hours ago. The verdict?
“No fish,” Nick tells us, shaking his head.
Fish Blood in Their Veins -- But Few Salmon in Their River
The cousins are alone on the water. Nick says it’s a whole different story in a normal year, especially during commercial fishing season.
“Practically this whole area is nets, all the way up to the bridge,” he says.
This year, it’s different.
“It’s like a ghost town,” Chavez says, “because there’s nobody out. It’s pretty sad, but then again just knowing there’s not a lot of people out here catching them, those fish have a chance to travel up there. At least that’s my hope.”
When we get off the water, Nick says that, unlike a lot of Yurok, he 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.”
He says learning to fish as an adult was hard at first. Then he turns to Chavez.
“What year did I pull in that 50-pound salmon?” he asks. "2011," she answers.
Chavez says she grew up with her family camping right here for the summer. Her grandma would make fry bread, and she and her great-grandmother would watch everyone fish. Chavez started fishing when she was 9.
“My partner was my auntie," Chavez recalls. "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.”
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,” Chavez says.
But this year, Chavez says, “she’ll have to deal with deer meat or elk meat or something”
A Tribal Celebration of Salmon
About five minutes away in the town of Klamath, thousands of Yurok 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. Yurok men sing songs for good luck around a card game.
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.
“This is how we’ve always done it, generation to generation,” Gensaw says, trying to avoid getting smoke in his eye. “When you first start cooking, you get those fat rings around the fish like a ring on a tree. When the fat starts dripping out of each of those rings, I know that side is done,” he explains.
Gensaw grew up in Klamath and has three sons and a baby daughter.
“My main goal is to pass this on to 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, the first time in festival history.
Tribal council member Joe James is hanging out by the fire pit.
“Last year we thought our fishing season was really, really low,” he says. “And this year is a record one -- unfortunately on the wrong end.”
He says 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, a tribe of 6,000, were allowed to catch just over 600 salmon.
Those low numbers are the end result of drought, disease and a long history of habitat destruction. 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, says James.
“We look forward for those dams to come down to start the process of healing our rivers” -- and with it the return of the salmon and other native species, he says.
In the parade, Annelia Hillman commands the megaphone for the Klamath Justice Coalition, which chants “Undam the Klamath! Bring the salmon home!” She says tribes along the Klamath have had to fight logging, gold mining, the dams and now a proposed natural gas pipeline.
“If we’re putting our water at risk like that, we’re putting life on Earth at risk,” she says.
'Our People Feel the Effects'
She says the river’s poor health and the low salmon run impacts the entire Yurok way of life.
“We were created in this place to help bring balance in this river," she says. "Our people are part of this system and when that balance is off, our people feel the effects.”
She says she sees that in her work as a youth social worker.
“When we can’t be in our river, can’t eat our fish, it kind of takes our purpose away," Hillman says. "We have one of the highest suicide rates, state of emergency for suicide, and I think that’s directly correlated to our lack of salmon and our inability to continue our way of life.”
The Yurok have fought for years to maintain their ties to the Klamath and its salmon. In the 1960s, game wardens frequently arrested members of the tribe for gillnet fishing on the river, a practice banned by the state. One young man, Raymond Mattz, challenged the arrests. His fight went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reaffirmed the tribe’s fishing rights -- and reservation status.
His nephew, Paul Mattz Van Mechelen, runs Paul’s Famous Smoked Salmon on U.S. 101. Customers know he’s open if there’s smoke coming from the traditional fire pit in front.
“That’s my Weber, my Yurok Weber!” he jokes.
Fish Blood in His Veins -- But No Salmon in the River
He started this shop 16 years ago after his grandmother came to him in a dream. A steady stream of customers come in to sample and buy the wild chinook salmon he prepares with flavors like garlic, lemon pepper and teriyaki. Usually, he gets his stock from the Klamath River.
“Not the last two years, though,” he says. “I had to go to the Columbia River,” hundreds of miles away in Oregon, where he makes purchases from native fishermen there. Gas, and payment for fish, those are big expenses for a business owner who usually fishes about 50 feet from here.
The losses from not fishing, they go deeper than just finances.
“I got a great niece -- she’s only 2 -- but she helped start up the boat and smiled and did all that last year,” he says. “Her auntie was 5 when she pulled in a fish. So that whole part of learning and teaching them who they are and what this river gives to them is kind of life in one way."
I ask Van Mechelen to tell me more about that one point, that fishing is who Yurok are. He gets emotional, even stepping out of the store for a minute before answering:
“So who am I? I had my grandma at a young age tell me I had fish blood," Van Mechelen says. "I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know why. But we’re all fishing people. You got to look down where we’re from,” he says.
And when you have fish blood but you have to stay away from fishing in hopes of keeping salmon here in the future?
“It’s sad to stay next to a river and wake up and not see fish go by," he says. "That’s the saddest part. It’s bad enough you dream about it.”
Van Mechelen says all he can do is pray the salmon come back.
This piece was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting network, a non-profit, investigative news organization.