The Klamath River spans two states and is one of the West Coast’s most important rivers for fish. Historically, the river provided a generous abundance of salmon, trout, and other fish species to Indigenous populations, who have inhabited the basin for thousands of years. Today, it remains critical to numerous Native communities, including the Hoopa, Karuk, Klamath, and Yurok tribes, who rely on it for food, weaving materials, and spiritual connection.
But for the past century, a series of dams have blocked the migration of salmon and steelhead to their historical spawning grounds, with ripple effects to the entire ecosystem.
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Normally, after salmon return to a river to spawn and die, their bodies provide key nutrients to other organisms in the river. This includes the trees that grow along the riverbanks whose roots help prevent erosion. Near Upper Klamath Lake, wetlands once served a vital role in filtering toxins from upper basin lakes and rivers, but they have been drained for agriculture.
An interdependent water-centered ecosystem has been replaced with warm stagnant waters and toxic algae blooms. Many of the fish populations are now dwindling, some of them approaching extinction. And tribal traditions can’t continue without these life-giving waters.
But thanks to the grassroots actions and intense lobbying of the lower basin tribes, especially the Yurok and Karuk, all of that is about to change.
In 2024, four of the five major dams on the Klamath River will be removed. This will be the largest dam removal process in U.S. history and will have far-reaching effects for the entire West Coast. Tribal efforts for removal began in 1903, when work on the first dam began. In recent decades, these efforts have received growing support from federal, nonprofit, and state agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where I work as a fisheries biologist and consulted on the impact of dam removal on endangered species. A collaborative network of these groups has been working hard to assemble an environmental framework that can support species once the dams are removed, and minimize any short-term consequences of the dams’ removal. The long-term benefits for the Klamath River’s fish and ecosystem will likely be huge.
“When we remove these dams, we’re restoring the river and also ourselves, because we’re so interconnected with everything,” says Barry McCovey Jr., a biologist and Yurok Tribal Member.
Cultural and Ecological Importance
The vital nature of salmon to the tribes has been known since well before the dams were built. The Hupa “Legend of Gard” ensures that “the red-fleshed salmon shall never fail in the river” as long as the people practice the spirits’ teachings of love and people.
In a Karuk creation legend, fishes were the first beings created “that have breath,” followed by other animals, and then humans.
With salmon mostly absent from their diets today, the tribes struggle to keep those cultural practices and traditions alive, such as smoking fish and presenting salmon to elders.
“Salmon have always been a keystone species for us and for this ecosystem,” Barry says. “But salmon are also important to people outside of the basin, and in the cities.” With the promise of dam removal secured, the tribes are finally seeing a larger societal response toward protecting wild salmon. Barry knows people want to be able to buy wild salmon with the assurance that it’s sustainable.
“On the backs of the salmon—a kind of Trojan horse—rides the bigger idea of ecosystem restoration,” Barry says. That’s critical to the tribes’ larger message. “If we talked about how dam removal is going to help lamprey runs,” he says, “well, we wouldn’t get the same response or support.”
Historical Fishing Versus Current Fish Runs
In addition to blocking access to hundreds of miles of fishes’ upstream habitat, the impoundment of water by the dams increases water temperatures. During a hot summer, river temperatures can reach 22 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Fahrenheit), stressing a fish’s immune system, and making fish more susceptible to pathogens and parasites in the Klamath, notably Ceratonova shasta and Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (known as “ich”), which can both be deadly.
The large reservoirs behind the dams also create conditions for a blue-green algae toxic to humans and dogs, known as cyanobacteria, to thrive and deplete water oxygen levels. Kathy McCovey, a Karuk Tribal Member and cultural resource management specialist, says they have to put up signs warning people, especially dogs and kids, not to touch the water. That’s antithetical to the annual late-summer medicine and renewal ceremonies meant to bond the community together with water and each other. “I bathe in the Klamath that time of year for ceremony, so do a lot of us, and we’re afraid to be going into the river,” Kathy says.
Fish health and abundance, too, are closely tied to poor water quality in the Klamath River.
Barry has seen the Chinook salmon population, which was once the third-largest in the country, plummet dramatically. “For most salmon runs on the Klamath, we’re in the 10% range of historical abundance. Some are even less. Some Chinook runs in recent years have dropped to as little as 2% to 3%.”
The Southern Oregon and Northern California Coho salmon populations, too, have declined sharply since the mid-20th century. The Klamath River commercial coho fishery was closed in 1994 and has remained closed to California ocean fisheries. In 1997, this same population of coho was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The fish are not really limited by annual rainfall, they’re limited by not having consistent sources of cold water,” says Toz Soto, fisheries biologist and Karuk Tribal Member. “There’s a lot of cold water in the basin. … There are springs basically coming right out of the earth, but they flow into the reservoirs above the dams, so fish don’t have access to that cold water.”
Green sturgeon, Pacific lamprey, and eulachon—a small, oily fish that can be dried or smoked—are also of great importance to the tribes, but their runs, too, have diminished in the past few decades. Lampreys use their sucker mouths to adhere to and climb rocks but are unable to navigate through a traditional fish ladder installed near many dams.
Climate change is layered on top of these already challenging conditions: In 2021, the Klamath saw massive juvenile fish die-offs as a result of extreme drought, warm water temperatures, and fish disease.
“Fish runs aren’t big enough for our harvest to be at the level that we need,” Barry says. Last year, the allocation of fall Chinook salmon for the Yurok Tribe was 6,500. But the Tribe needed 12,000 to meet the subsistence needs of its 7,000 members. Such low numbers mean the Yurok Tribe often leaves its hard-won fishing rights unused. And that has huge ramifications for the lower Klamath Tribe’s ability to feed itself.
Many downriver tribes live far from stores that would provide regular access to healthy foods. For residents of the Yurok reservation, the closest city is Crescent City, which requires a nearly two-hour drive along winding remote roads in need of repair.
“The Karuk Tribe is located in the mid-Klamath, so it’s pretty remote,” Soto says. It and the Hoopa tribal lands can only be accessed by Highway 96, which meanders along the river and is susceptible to landslides and flooding. It’s a lonely drive from where the highway starts near the border with Oregon to the eventual salty coast of Northern California. A drive at dusk reveals long hours of dark stretches without a single headlight or house light to be seen. “There’s not really a lot of access to traditional foods, or even just groceries,” Soto says.
A community food-security assessment was conducted in 2019 by University of California, Berkeley, researchers with tribal colleagues among the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk, and Klamath. They found that food-insecurity rates among Native American communities in the Klamath River Basin were higher than in any other Native American communities studied to date: 92% of households were suffering from some level of food insecurity. More than half experienced very low food security.
According to the study, “There is a strong demand for Native foods and fresh fruits and vegetables that is not being met.” Some 70% of all households in the Klamath River Basin rarely or never have access to desired Native foods. Still, nearly 40% of households rely on fishing, hunting, and home-canned foods to minimize food insecurity.
Kathy McCovey knows this firsthand. She says during the pandemic, even basic staples like beans and rice were sold out. “If there is a kink in the system for us here in rural area[s],” she says, “that’s pretty dire circumstances.”
As traditional foods, also known as “first foods,” have been removed from Native diets, the rates of diabetes and other diseases have risen, with about 83% of Klamath tribal households reporting at least one person in their household suffering from health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
Of dire need are foods sourced from what is traditional and accessible to the tribes: earth and river. Environmental studies have shown that restoring more natural flows to the river would provide many significant benefits, including the protection and restoration of anadromous fisheries and a connection to wetlands that are of vital importance to the tribes and their health.
A Future With First Foods
With the future promising a more natural river hydrology with seasonal ebbs and flows and cleaner water, tribal people can start looking forward to the return of ceremony and first foods on their tables again.
Justin Alvarez, a biologist working with the Hoopa, is optimistic that with the dams out, new populations of lamprey will make their way into areas even above Upper Klamath Lake. Kathy remembers large freshwater clams once taken from the river. With natural sediment deposits from a free-flowing river, the Yurok may have access again to healthy runs of eulachon, which they may be able to trade with other tribes farther upstream.
Other first foods will benefit from the return of annual spring floods, colder and faster-moving waters, and natural sediment dispersal. Newly expanded wetlands and woodlands could provide bulbs, like camas and wapato, which can be boiled and eaten like potatoes. Mushrooms like morels appear after the flooding of riverbanks, as do blackberries.
Eventually, as the river restores itself, newly expanded oak woodlands could return acorn mush to the plate and once again provide habitat for deer and elk, too.
“Removing dams is a huge step towards restoring balance to the Klamath River. And that’s who we are, as a people, as a culture,” Barry McCovey says. “We are always striving towards a restorative and balanced ecosystem.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 12:46 p.m. PT on Feb. 28, 2023, to replace an image that was mislabeled as Toz Soto. Read our corrections policy here.
Heather Wiedenhoft is a scientist and freelance writer with a passion for the outdoors. She currently works for NOAA as a Fisheries Biologist and have helped with the dam removal consultation in relationship to ESA- listed fish species Her research has led to peer-reviewed publications in Cell Journal, Harmful Algae, and Frontiers in Neuroscience. Her freelance writing focuses on marine ecosystems, and has been published in Fisheries Magazine, Aquaculture North America, and National Fisherman. When she is not making discoveries in the lab or crafting on her computer, you can find her exploring the backwoods of Oregon.