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California Collaborates with Tribe to Save Endangered Salmon


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A California tribe has signed agreements with state and federal agencies to work together on efforts to return endangered Chinook salmon to their traditional spawning grounds upstream from Shasta Dam, a deal that could advance the tribal chiefs’ long-term goal of returning California-farmed fish to New Zealand for over a century and it still thrives there.

Members of the Winnem Winto tribe have long sought to restore wild salmon populations in the McCloud River north of Reading, where their ancestors once lived. The agreements signed this week for the first time officially recognize the tribe as a partner involved in the effort to save the critically endangered winter chinook salmon.

“We’re very optimistic,” said Kalin Sisk, the tribe’s leader and spiritual leader. “It allows us to have a bigger voice in the salmon reinstatement process.”

State and federal officials “realized that they really had to be partners,” she said.

“I think it’s going to take everyone knowing to really get them back,” Cesk said.

The agreements were signed Monday with state and federal fisheries officials at a ceremony near Shasta Lake, near where the McCloud River flows into the reservoir. Once the signing was finished, members of the Winem Wintu and Pomo tribes danced around the fire.

Chinook salmon have not had access to the McCloud River since 1942, when the construction of the Shasta Dam prevented the fish from swimming upstream of the Sacramento River and closed off their spawning grounds, dropping their numbers.

The past three years of severe drought have caused losses of critically endangered winter salmon to worsen. The waters of the Sacramento River downstream from Shasta Dam sometimes get so hot that they are fatal to salmon eggs.

Last year, the fish experienced the worst mating season ever recorded. Recent rain and snow have boosted Lake Shasta to 98% of full capacity, promising better conditions for salmon this year. But the Chinook still faces major threats as global warming leads to more severe droughts.

The scientists also found that salmon in California suffer in part from a thiamine deficiency, which they suspect occurs because the fish ate heavily on anchovies, which grew in abundance along the coast.

Chinook salmon is a staple in the Winnem Wintu cultural and spiritual traditions. They call Salmon Nour.

The McCloud River lies at the heart of their traditional homeland, which the tribe lost when the reservoir was filled.

For years, the tribe has advocated an approach to reintroducing salmon that would involve developing a “swimming lane” so that the fish can travel up and downstream around Shasta Dam.

The tribe also wants to use Chinook salmon eggs that were brought to New Zealand over a century ago. Sisk said she and others are convinced that, because they are wild and adapted to swim in cascading mountain streams, these fish are better suited to McCloud River conditions than other hatchery-raised fish in California.

Under the agreements, state and federal agencies undertook to study a possible reintroduction of the Chinook from New Zealand. The agreements also call for an analysis of the feasibility of building a fish corridor that would allow salmon to travel around the dam.

Without that kind of corridor, “we know there’s no point in bringing New Zealand salmon back or putting salmon on McCloud,” Cesk said.

“This is the only way the salmon will recover,” she said.

Biologists track distinct populations of salmon in the Sacramento River, each named for the season in which they return from the Pacific. In addition to the endangered winter-running Chinook, there is the spring-running Chinook, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The most numerous are the fall-running and late-fall Chinook, which support both commercial and recreational fisheries. But this year, the organizers decided to close the fishing season along the California coast for the second time in history due to a significant decline in salmon numbers.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries have agreed to include the tribe as a “co-equal” in decisions regarding efforts to rebuild salmon populations. The tribe agreed to share traditional ecological knowledge, just as their ancestors once did for fisheries expert Livingston Stone, who established the first Chinook salmon hatchery on the McCloud River in 1872.

The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife also provided a $2.3 million grant to support the tribe’s efforts.

Chuck Bonham, director of the division, said the “co-management” agreement was long overdue.

“We can’t change the mistakes made in the past, but we have an obligation in the present to improve them,” Bonham said. “Through this agreement, we are bringing life back to McCloud River.”

The tribe’s “joint oversight” with NOAA Fisheries came about “because we collectively identified both the risks to the remaining population, but also the opportunities we had to come together and chart a new path for salmon recovery,” said Cathy Marcinkiwaj, the agency’s assistant regional director.

Last year, tribal members worked with state and federal biologists on a pilot project on the McCloud River, releasing thousands of overwintering salmon pups that were brought in from a nearby hatchery. By mid-December, more than 1,600 fish had been recovered, loaded into air coolers, and trucked downstream, where they were released to continue their journey.

State officials also tested a system for collecting young salmon in Lake Shasta.

Plans for this year are yet to be determined, but the new agreements “give us more confidence that we can make a similar joint effort to move the winter to McCloud again this year,” said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries.

Daniel Cordalis, co-director of Ridges to Riffles, an indigenous protection group, said the agreements provide an example of how government agencies can work with indigenous leaders to restore ecosystems.

“We believe that a lot of the restoration work can and should be done with the support of the indigenous communities that are there,” Cordalis said. “Having them as part of all these restoration projects, and having a voice to be a part of, is incredibly important to the longevity and durability of the restoration.”

Cisk said government officials’ willingness to include the tribe marks a significant change.

“They actually let us sit at the table. Before, they wouldn’t even let us be on the steering committee,” she said.

Sisk said she hopes to be able to repopulate the fish population in New Zealand within three years. “We need to think creatively,” she said.

Sisk said she hopes government biologists will focus on studying how to “conserve wild fish” to help them survive. She said she also hopes that once the salmon return to the McCloud River, the 126 members of the tribe may also be able to regain their home and thrive along the river.

“We think whatever happens to salmon happens to us,” she said.

2023 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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