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Salmon-fishing Tribe finds Strength,
Hope for Future in Klamath Ruling

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, September 4, 2001

KLAMATH -- Down on the mist-shrouded mouth of the Klamath River, no one has any doubt that the federal government did the right thing when it shut off water supplies to Klamath Basin irrigators, 180 miles upstream.

Two dozen members of the Yurok Tribe are fishing for fall chinook, some trolling in small outboards, others tending long gill nets.

Yuroks have always been salmon fishers. Their reservation is a narrow ribbon along the course of the Klamath River, extending 44 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

They are targeting fall chinook. Some water was held back from irrigators to aid three other fish listed under the Endangered Species Act, two types of sucker in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Klamath River. The Yurok tribe catches very few -- in some years, none -- coho because of their imperiled state.

Sending water sent into the Klamath helps all kinds of fish by making the river flow faster and cooler. That pleases the members of the Yurok Tribe.

"I feel very privileged,' " said Nora Osburne, 28, who pitched a tent on a sandbar three weeks earlier and had so far caught 613 fat fall chinook in a set of gill nets strung before her in the river.

Although commercial fishing along the North California coast has been largely closed for a decade, and sport fishing has been cut sharply, tribal fishing, recognized by law, has continued. Last year tribal members caught 29,718 fall chinook, twice the allowed harvest of the year before.

This year's tribal quota is 60,000 fall chinook, the second-largest quota in 25 years.

Osburne says she will give the fish she catches to 96 members of her extended family -- including grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins -- who live as far north as Smith River, Calif., and as far south as San Jose.

Giving salmon to family members, she said, is an important tribal tradition.

So is catching salmon.

"If it wasn't for our elders showing us what to do, we wouldn't be out here doing this," she said. "I want my kids out here doing this and showing their kids how it's done."

Maintaining water in the Klamath River will not affect this year's return of fall chinook; fish entering the river as adults now left the river as fingerlings three or four years ago. But it will help the run in future years, as this year's young salmon return to the river.

Troy Fletcher, executive director of the tribe and a tribal member, said that by cutting off the farmers' water, the federal government showed that tribal rights for water needed by salmon trumps irrigators' rights.

"The tribes have spent years building the scientific and legal groundwork to prove that fish need water," Fletcher said.

"This year the administration did the right thing and put the needs of fish and the tribes over the project's junior water right holders. If you look at it, there really was no other choice."

Jonathan Brinckman
Salmon-fishing Tribe finds Strength, Hope for Future in Klamath Ruling
The Oregonian, September 4, 2001

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