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Klamath Salmon... Or Whose Water Is It?

posted on March 28, 2008

The California Legislature this week approved more than $5 million to restore salmon habitat as federal fisheries managers consider whether to shut down salmon fishing off the California and Oregon coasts.

The money is intended to rebuild dwindling salmon populations by removing stream barriers and restoring spawning areas.

Those who rely on the fish for their income are facing what might be called a "perfect storm" of environmental, economic, and political challenges. Jeannie Campbell explains.

The Klamath River winds for over 260 miles through southern Oregon and Northern California and historically, has been the third most productive salmon- river in the United States. But, in 2006 the commercial fishing season for salmon off the Pacific coast was cut by 90%, primarily because of a lack of fish coming from the Klamath. Peter Doyle has been a commercial fisherman for 36 years. He hopes that the 2007 salmon season is better than it was in 2006, but on his first trip of the new season, he only caught 16 fish.

Peter Doyle, Bodega Bay, California: "No, that's not good at all. Barely pays for the fuel. They're getting a fairly decent price now but with the fuel costs and all that and when you consider that I had to run up from California which is, at least 300 miles from here, 16 isn't enough…30 is probably a break-even point."

Besides fishing, there are hydroelectric and agricultural demands for water from the Klamath River basin. In 2003, agricultural concerns were a top priority, and water from the Klamath basin was diverted for irrigation. Many believe that the diversion cost fishing families and related businesses along the Pacific coast more than 60 million dollars.

Jeff Feldner, Logsden, Oregon: "There was seven hundred miles of the West Coast closed last year because of the Klamath River. Seven hundred miles of coast that we couldn't fish in."

Jeff Feldner fishes out of Newport, Oregon, and like a-lot of fishermen, he's had a difficult time turning a profit.

Jeff Feldner, Logsden, Oregon: I fish crabs in the winter so I had that to fall back on, but salmon fishery was a disaster.

With expensive condominiums that overlook the harbor at Newport, and a healthy tourism industry, the fact that a part of the costal economy is not doing well, is hardly noticeable.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, Oregon Salmon Commission: "Fisherman are always optimistic. Just like farmers. Next year's gonna be better than this year."

Nancy Fitzpatrick is the administrator for the Oregon Salmon Commission. Part of her job is to help salmon fishermen find financial assistance.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, Oregon Salmon Commission: "When we started this port outreach specialist project this last year to help the fisherman access the state services. Many of them would not access them because they said, I'm, I don't need food stamps, I don't need, I can do this myself, I don't want help, I don't want a hand out.

So, yes, they are very independent they want to do it themselves, they want to stand tall and say that they can support their families.

While the 2006 salmon season was a disaster for fishermen, in 2001 farmers upstream were in trouble. According to Dave Solem, Manager of the Klamath Irrigation District it was a very dry year.

Dave Solem, Manager of Klamath Irrigation District: "2001 was a rough year, to have an irrigation district and operate it without water is, you can imagine. It was terrible. People lost their places, crops basically were non-existent. It was just tough, I mean, the whole community suffered."

In 2001, when the federal government denied farmers access to water needed to irrigate their fields, agricultural concerns upstream took a back seat to fish downstream. In Klamath Falls, 20,000 people protested the move by forming a bucket brigade. 50 buckets, one for each state, were passed from Klamath Lake to an irrigation canal… A symbolic gesture that drew national attention.

The protest may have been why the federal government in 2002, under similar drought conditions, allowed farmers to irrigate, which in turn, caused a decreased flow of water on the Klamath. The California Department of Fish and Game reported that it was low water flows on the Klamath that year that caused an increase in parasites and disease that may have killed as many as 68,000 salmon.

Dave Solem, Manager of Klamath Irrigation District: "I think the theme here is to, try to work together to make this thing work out. Farmers, ranchers, and fishermen have a lot in common. They're, they're all producers, ah, they're trying to get by and make a living for their families."

That sentiment is why farmers and ranchers in the Klamath basin met with costal fishermen to work on solutions, and why in 2006 agricultural interests in the area established the "The Klamath Relief Fund for Families of Commercial Fishermen."

Beyond what agriculture's impact might be on fishing interests, there are also a series of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath, which many believe is causing the reduction in the salmon population.

Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen Association: "The sole purpose of those dams is to produce a minuscule amount of power by modern standards and what they do is they jeopardize the health and safety of the whole rest of the river."

Glen Spain is the Northwest Regional Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman Association. His group and others believe, removing four hydroelectric dams that are up for licensing renewal would allow salmon access to 350 to 500 miles of currently inaccessible stream habitat.

Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen Association: "Dam licenses like this come up for review once every 30 to 50 years, and ah, we've got our generations opportunity to make that river whole, to bring those river runs back, and to fail to do that would be a tragedy."

Still, according to PacifiCorp, the company that owns the dams, the electricity that the dams generate is a reliable source of renewable energy that allows the utility to meet the needs of its customers.

Toby Freeman, Regional Community Manager for Pacific Power: "Certainly, it produces enough electricity to meet the needs of over 190,000 people each year and that has tremendous value because there's no pollution involved in providing that ah, benefit to the public."

 Toby Freeman is the Regional Community Director for Pacific Power, a division of PacificCorp, which serves 1.6 million customers in 6 states. 190 miles upstream from the Pacific, the hydroelectric dam known as Iron Gate prevents fish from swimming any further upriver. Part of the original licensing agreement called for the construction of a fish hatchery at the site, which according to Freeman, costs his company 500,000 dollars annually to operate, and for the past fifty years has produced roughly 25 percent of the Chinook salmon population In the Klamath

Toby Freeman, Regional Community Manager for Pacific Power: "We do a lot to help the environment. In fact our raptor ah, protection program is the model in the industry. We're providing an extensive network ah, campgrounds and boat launches to facilitate public recreation. Ah, this is ah, one of the things about hydro-power. Certainly it produces clean, renewable electricity but it also provides and array of other public benefits as well."

Also hurt by weak salmon runs are Native Americans whose economy depends on the fish they harvest. With so many different constituencies depending on the Klamath, scientists hope they can increase catches and protect natural resources.

In Newport, Oregon, researchers are associating fish in the ocean, with their river of origin, through DNA testing. Next week we'll examine those efforts, and learn how fishermen are adding value to their salmon harvest to increase profits.

For Market to Market, I'm Jeannie Campbell.


Tags: agriculture animals fish marine life news Oregon salmon water