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U.S. declares disaster for tribal salmon fisheries on the West Coast

With severe drought and high heat in the West, only a small percentage of spring-run Chinook salmon survived in August 2021, leaving dead fish decomposing on the shores of places such as Butte Creek in Chico, Calif. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

For generations upon generations, the Yurok tribe has relied on Chinook salmon from the Klamath River in Northern California for ceremonies, subsistence and commercial gain.

But in 2019, less than 40 percent of the usual number of salmon returned to the river — resulting in what tribal Chairman Joseph L. James called an “utter failure” of that year’s stock.

The Yurok tribe isn’t alone. Between 2014 and 2019, tribal salmon fisheries failed in Washington state rivers, too.

On Sept. 1, the Commerce Department declared fishery disasters for several West Coast tribes and allocated $17.4 million in disaster assistance in response. The assistance will be used to shore up everything from habitat restoration to commercial and subsistence fishers.

West Coast salmon have been under stress for years. After spawning in freshwater rivers, their offspring migrate to the ocean to feed, then generations come back year after year to spawn. Despite management and conservation efforts, in some rivers, the number of returning fish is dwindling or uncertain.

California’s disappearing salmon

Researchers blame everything from pollution to river dams that prevent access to spawning grounds to rising ocean temperatures connected to climate change.

Some stocks of Chinook salmon have been designated threatened and endangered in their river habitats. Others are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although fishing treaties vary, many reserve tribal rights to fish in “usual and accustomed” places or in waters associated with reservations. Tribes and bands also participate in fisheries management and conservation.

The fishery failures not only cut off valuable income sources for tribal entities but also disrupt traditional uses and even household food sources. The Upper Skagit tribe, which catches coho and sockeye salmon in the Upper Skagit River before it drains into Puget Sound, sees fishing “as a way of life,” then-tribal Chair Jennifer R. Washington wrote in 2019. “With few or no fish available to harvest because of low abundance, the entire community suffers.” The tribe will receive about $300,000 in disaster assistance, according to the Commerce Department.


An earlier version of this article misstated the migration patterns of West Coast salmon. West Coast salmon offspring migrate to the ocean to feed, then generations of the fish come back year after year to spawn.