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The Klamath's Salmon Disaster: Why it happened and what's needed now
by Felice Pace
Thursday Apr 13th, 2017 11:46 AM
Reports on the current Klamath Salmon Disaster, including recent reports on Indy Media, fail to identify the real reason tribal subsistence and other Klamath fishers will not be allowed to take salmon from the Klamath River and the nearby ocean this year. Here I explain the real reason and why tribal and fishing leaders don't want to acknowledge the roll they played in creating the disaster. I end by listing lessons which I believe should be taken from what has transpired and the role independent citizens should play in making sure our leaders take care of our River and Klamath Salmon.
In his recently featured report, Record Low Klamath Salmon Run Spurs Tribal, Commercial and Sport Fishery Closures, Dan Bacher claims that projected low salmon returns to the Klamath River are "due to a combination of several years of drought, water diversions in the Klamath Basin and to the Sacramento River and the continued presence of the PacifiCorp dams." Dan's claims parrot talking points and press releases from tribal leaders who are pushing their own agendas, including Klamath Dam removal and federal disaster relief payments. But those claims are not the reason there will be record low returns of salmon to the Klamath River and severely curtailed salmon fishing this year.

To find the real reasons for the Klamath's current salmon disaster we should look not to the statements of tribal political leaders but to the findings of fish scientists. Those findings are clear: projected low returns of adult salmon to the Klamath River this year are the direct result of a 2013 Biological Opinion on federal water management in the Upper Klamath River Basin. That opinion allowed the US Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the 220,000 acre Klamath Irrigation Project, to cut Klamath River flows in winter and spring in order to maximize the amount of water available for diversion and delivery to irrigators the following summer.

Scientists confirm that low winter and spring river flows are the main reason why, since 2013, between 48 and 90% of the young salmon born in the Klamath River Basin have died before they could reach the Pacific Ocean. The low flows are a direct result of the 2013 Biological Opinion, not dams, drought or Trinity River diversions.

Why are tribal and commercial fishing leaders not talking about the real reason for low ocean salmon abundance and expected disastrous Klamath salmon returns? I suspect the main reason is the failure of those very leaders to challenge the 2013 Biological Opinion which resulted in up to 90% of young salmon dying before they could reach the ocean.

I began calling in KlamBlog for the 2013 Biological Opinion to be legally challenged soon after it was adopted. Tribal officials and the leaders of fishing organizations ignored those calls; one commercial fishing leader actively opposed a legal challenge. At the time, those leaders were in secret negotiations with the feds and Klamath Basin irrigation interests. I believe tribal and fishing leaders allowed the corrupt 2013 Biological Opinion to go unchallenged for four years because they hoped Congress would approve the KBRA Water Deal. While that hope stood, tribal and fishing leaders did not want to rock the regulatory boat.

Even after the demise of the KBRA Water Deal, tribal and fishing leaders did not immediately step up to challenge the 2013 Biological Opinion even as more and more young salmon died. Finally, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which never signed or supported the KBRA Water Deal, filed a legal challenge. The Yurok Tribe, Pacific Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Klamath Riverkeeper followed Hoopa's lead; together they filed a separate legal challenge. Those challenges have now been successful; increased river flows in winter and spring are the result and a new biological opinion governing federal irrigation will be prepared.

It is great that better flows for salmon have now been secured. But those responsible for the current salmon disaster should also take responsibility for the roles they played in creating it. By allowing the corrupt 2013 Biological Opinion to stand for four long years, tribal officials and the leaders of commercial and sport fishing organizations are, in part, responsible for the Klamath's salmon disease epidemic that will continue to created suffering for tribal and ocean salmon fishing families for years to come.

There are lessons in all this: When tribes, fishermen and environmental organization abandon good science in favor of political deal making bad things result. And while tribal governments need funding for fisheries and restoration programs, that funding must not come in Faustian deals which compromise the needs of Klamath Salmon for political and funding benefits.

There is one more lesson I take from these realities: the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon need independent citizens, and in particular tribal members, fisher persons and others who care about the River and Klamath Salmon, to closely monitor the actions of tribal government leaders, fishing organizations and environmental groups. All have political and funding agendas that have nothing to do with the needs of the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon. Even the governments of salmon tribes are, when all is said and done, still governments. All governments are prone to corruption and all need citizen oversight.

As the oldest living independent Klamath River activist, I will be watching to see how tribal, fishing and environmental leaders behave in the future. What I find, the good and the bad, will be reported in KlamBlog. I hope other folks will join in this effort to hold our leaders responsible.