In Ishi Pishi Falls, Siskiyou County, California, along the Klamath River, a Karuk tribesman, Ron Reed, is on the tribe’s annual salmon run. He uses two twenty-foot wooden poles to ensnare the fish from the water below.
The Karuk are the country’s second or third federally recognized largest tribes, with enrollment numbers at 4,000, according to the Sacramento Bee (via ArcaMax). But by the end of the morning, Reed and his son-in-law, Asa Donahue, have only seven Chinook.
Thirty years ago, it might have been seventy.
“It’s been like a death in the family the last five, six years down here,” Reed said.
They Chinook are more than something to eat for the Karuk tribe. The fish—both real and as a symbol—are woven into their history and culture so deeply that Reed can’t envision a world without them.
“When the fish go,” Reed said, “that’s the end of the world.”
White settlers modified the rivers that the Karuk and other local tribes depended on so heavily. For example, the gold miners traumatized the Klamath and other waterways by removing huge amounts of rocks and sand. The mining process itself contaminated the rivers with mercury, lead and other poisons. Those toxins are still—a century and a half later—showing up in Klamath Basin’s fish.
By the early 1900s, it was the power companies ruining the river with giant hydroelectric dams on the Klamath, blocking fish from swimming further than 100 miles from their spawning grounds. Below where the dams sit, there are two rivers—the Scott and the Shasta—that provide important breeding grounds for spawning fish. However, for the last 100 years those rivers have also been siphoned off, in service of growing hay for grazing cattle.
Several types of salmon have paid the price. Pink and chum salmon no longer swim in the Klamath. Spring-run Chinook and coho are on the edge of extinction. The fall run of the Chinook, partly propped up by a hatchery below Iron Gate Dam, is the last remaining salmon fishery on the river, according to the Sacramento Bee.
According to state fishing regulations, the Karuk tribe is allowed to catch fall-run Chinook at Ishi Pishi Falls using their traditional nets. But not all runs have enough fish to catch. The lack of ritual degrades Karuk society—young boy’s don’t learn how to catch fish from their fathers. They also don’t get to participate in certain ceremonies.
“You can’t teach your kids to do the things we do without the fish,” said Chook-chook Hillman. At 13, his son had his first opportunity to bring fish up the trail to the tribe’s ceremonial site, a lucky break that happened because only a few fish happened to show up that year.
The Karuk, along with environmental groups, argue that the dams on their river should be removed. California, in conjunction with Oregon, created a plan in 2020 to tear down four dams on the Klamath River in an attempt to restore the fisheries. The act would “right some wrongs, address some of our historic mistakes,” Governor Gavin Newsom assured.
As Reed sees it, not just the fish are in danger, but also modern ways of farming that he believes are unsustainable. If farming doesn’t lessen its impact on the land, it could go the way of the Chinook salmon. “[Agriculture]’s going to be gone if we don’t monitor them,” he said. “The same way our fish will be gone.”