The secretary of the interior looked up from his chair at the big-chested Yurok Indian man standing over him.
"There's a lot that you guys have got to learn," said Walt Lara, the Yrrok man. "Nobody should be allowed to tell us when we can go fishing, or where we can go, or how many we can catch."
Cecil D. Andrus, the secretary, got up and took the microphone and said what he had been saying all morning that biologists believe this year's fall salmon run on the Klamath River is dangerously small, so small that unstricted fishing might ruin it for coming years. And once again, Andrus said he would not lift the fishing moratorium that has provoked the nasty confrontation being referred to by local newspapers as the Klamath Salmon War.
Andrus arrived by helicopter in this small Pacific Coast community Thursday morning, accompanied by Forrest Gerard, assistant secretary for Indian affaris.
They came in the midst of a tense and occasionally violent dispute over salmon fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River, which cuts through a pine-forested Indian reservatin about 350 miles north of San Francisco and for many years yielded excellent salmon catches both to Indian residents and to non Indian sportsmen.
But this year, according to state and federal biologists, who say they are counting the number of salmon swimming in from the ocean to their river spawning grounds, the run is about a third the size of last year's.
The scientists say the run has apparently been depleted by intensive commercial fishing (some of which is done by Indians), by poor logging practices that left silt and debris clogging upriver spawning grounds, by the recent deought that lowered the river level and by water projects that have hampered the river flow.
So on Aug 28, at one minute past midnight, state and federal authorities began enforcing a moratorium on salmon fishing.
The moratorium prohibits non-Indians from catching Klamath River salmon anywhere in the popular stretch from the ocean to about 40 milesa inland.
It allows Indians to catch salmon five days a week, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., anywhere east of the bridge that runs over the Klamath about three miles inland from the ocean.
But west of the bridge, in that three-mile stretch where the salmon gather in preparation for their swim to the spawning ground, no fishing at all is allowed.
Almost every night since the moratorium was imposed, Indian fishermen have been running their boats into the prohibited three-mile stretch and, in full defiance of the moratorium dropping large nets into the dark water to catch salmon.
At least 10 Indians have been arrested and have had their nets confiscated, twice in the middle of angry, boat-ramming melees. NonIndian sportsmen and owners of camps designed to accommodate them are furious, saying they stand on the river banks at nights and watch Indian fishermen pull in the prized salmon by the dozen.
There is also arguments about the moratorium among the Indians, who belong mostly to one of two tribes and have been embroiled for 15 years in a legal conflict over million of dollars in reservation timber profits.
Andrus stepped into the middle of all this, tieless and in walking shoes, because of "the importance that we attach to this issue," he said. At a Wednesday news conference in San Francisco, he said several times, "I'm here because I was asked."
Andrus was the third Cabinet member to make a personal appearance in California in recent weeks. Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams recently visited Los Angeles to inspect a freeway site, and over the Labor Day holiday, secretary of Labor Ray Marshall visited five California functions, three of them in support of Democratic political candidates.)
(This burst of high-level Carter administration attention to California is not without possible political significance. Californians take it for granted that their governor, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. has an eye on a 1980 run for the White Hous.)
Meanwhile, back in Klamath, there is, in fact, more than one issue involved, and that was part of the reason some Indian residents were so eager to talk to Andrus.
A Court of Claims judge ruled four years ago that the Yurok Indians were entitled to share in the profits from timber sales on land the Hoopas had always assumed was Hoopa land.
But the money for the Yuroks, which has by now beenestimated at about $20 million, has been held in escrow since the decision, pending a lengthy and complicated process of determining who is properly Yurok and therefore entitled to a share.
Andrus said, as he faced a crowded Klamath community hall filled mostly with Yurok and Hoopa Indians, that the delay was "incredible," and said a task force including Justice and Interior department officials will begin meeting next week to try to speed settlement of the case.He was less encouraging to those who sought an end to the moratorium.
Saying that the biologists are wrong, that the fall salmon run is just late, speaker after speaker insisted that the prohibited three-mile stretch of river is a traditional Indian fishing area, that some Indian fishermen depend on commercial fishing in that stretch for their livelihoods, and that the Indians were being singled out for the moratorium while offshore commercial fishermen were allowed to continue unchecked.
Not all wanted total repeal of the moratorium - Peter Master Jr., head of the Hoopa Valley Business' Council, said that the Indians ought to be permitted unlimited subsistence fishing, but that until hatcheries and other enhancement programs could be established, "there cannot be commercial fishing allowed."
Commercial netting near the mouth of the river, whether done by Indians or nonIndians, was hampering the run of salmon towards the inland section of the river where many Hoopa people live, Masten said.
The moratorium will stay, Andrus said, until the biologists' count shows that 115,000 salmon have passed through the mouth of the river toward the spawning grounds. He said limited salmon fishing may be allowed in the prohibited three-mile stretch for Indian ceremonial purposes, but that fish and wildlife authorities will have to approve those request on an individual basis.
Andrus later repeated those assurances to a group of mostly nonIndian sports and commercial fishermen, many of whom blamed the Indians' recent increase in commercial nettings for the decline in the salmon run.