Persistence, Conviction and Citizen Science Lead to a Win for Spring Chinook

By Caroline Griffith 

On Wednesday, June 16, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list Klamath spring Chinook salmon as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. The listing came in response to a petition filed July 23, 2018 by the Salmon River Restoration Council and the Karuk tribe, and hinged on the recent genetic discovery that spring and fall Chinook are separate species, something the Karuk tribe had been saying for years. In the Karuk language, the two species even have different names: Spring Chinook is called ishyaat while Fall Chinook is called aama. This designation, which went against the recommendation of Commission staff, will increase protections, increase available funding for research, and reinforce the importance of removing dams on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and other large-scale restoration projects. 

Spring Chinook. Photo from Salmon River Restoration Council

The definition of “species” in relation to the Endangered Species Act has been debated for years and litigated by groups such as the Pacific Legal Foundation that would like to see decreased protections for wildlife, which they see as getting in the way of development. According to Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Analyst for the Karuk Tribe, for many years the question of what constitutes a species has been almost philosophical because statute and science differ on the definition. “Conservation biologists could take a snapshot of a genome of one animal and compare it to another, but the snapshot was fuzzy,” says Tucker. “Now that the genome can be sequenced, really small differences can be noted. Very small genetic differences can constitute a difference in species.” For the Spring Chinook, that genetic difference was first noted by scientists in 2017.

Cartoon by Joel Mielke

Though the first petition to list Spring Chinook as an endangered species was in 2011, the effort to bring awareness to the issue began long before. In the late 80s and early 90s, Karuk tribal members and residents around the Salmon River started to notice disturbingly low spring runs. According to Karuna Greenberg, Restoration Director at the Salmon River Restoration Council, people were used to seeing masses of salmon, but as run numbers dwindled below 200 people became concerned. Sharing and eating salmon was part of the local culture, and since part of rural culture is to deal with problems without going to outsiders for help, “Local people were noticing,” says Greenberg, “and were like, hey, what are we going to do? These are our fish, what are we going to do about it as a community?” 

As a result, the Salmon River Restoration Council (SRRC) was born in 1992. “People wanted to take some responsibility to keep the last few fish from disappearing,” Greenberg says. Grassroots campaigns started popping up to bring awareness, including music, art (Poach Eggs, Not Salmon) and even a play written and directed by local, Petey Brucker. The play, “Salmon Ed”, brought together tribal members, fishermen, agencies, miners and other locals to play different roles which built connections between people who may have previously seen themselves as being on different sides of the issue. According to Greenberg, this changed the dynamic and made dwindling Spring Chinook numbers a community issue which people felt a responsibility to stop. “People decided, voluntarily, to stop overfishing.” 

But overfishing wasn’t the only threat to the Spring Chinook; other human behaviors, including mining, logging, fire suppression and climate change related drought were all affecting the salmon. As awareness grew so did the desire to make the fish counts more official; locals wanted to get good data and have a real sense of how the numbers were changing so they could affect policy and get funding for restoration projects. The irony of the situation is that in order to get funding to study Spring Chinook and work on restoration projects, they need to be listed as endangered. And in order for them to be listed, there needed to be data to back that up. 

The Salmon River Restoration Councils Spring Chinook dive takes place in late July when fish are holed up in deep pools and near cool side streams, making it possible to actually count individual fish. Photo by Will Harling

Although the Forest Service had been conducting periodic dives to count the springers, as they are called by the locals, they were sporadic and not well funded. SRRC worked to recruit volunteers and then convince the Forest Service that volunteers were capable of doing the work. Since then, twice a year, 80 volunteers swim the entire Salmon River in a single day to survey the fish population and provide data essential to understanding the health and viability of the fishery. The Spring Chinook dive takes place in late July when fish are holed up in deep pools and near cool side streams, making it possible to actually count individual fish. This citizen science project, as well as the long-term water temperature surveys and watershed education programs that SRRC conducts in collaboration with local schools, have helped paint a picture of what needs to be done to help this species survive. One interesting finding of the water temperature surveys, which also corroborates Traditional Ecological Knowledge, points to the impact of fire and how smoke from fires can lower water temperatures, making them more habitable for salmon. 

According to Greenberg, this citizen science and community involvement has been key in the fight to get Spring Chinook listed and recognized as an endangered species under California state law. “This community has been steadfast,” Greenberg said. “We were not of high hopes the day this listing came up. We had read the staff recommendation. We were absolutely glued to the hearing and the testimony. When the vote came in, we erupted in tears. It was such a powerful moment. We did not expect it. The fight was so long, we had such conviction and had pushed up that mountain over and over again. So much of that is due to regular people persisting and recognizing how important it is.”

As for the fact that science now validates Traditional Ecological Knowledge in recognizing that Spring and Fall Chinook are different species, both Greenberg and Tucker note that if ishyaat populations were healthy enough for us to do so, we would be able to taste the difference ourselves. And perhaps, now that they have been listed and protections and funding will become available for restoration, someday we will be able to do so. As Tucker says, “They are the best tasting fish in the Pacific Northwest, which should be reason enough to protect them.”

For more information on SRRC’s citizen science projects and to get involved, visit srrc.org.