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Klamath fisheries facing closure

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Hoopa and Yurok tribes on the far northern
California coast are facing drastic cuts to their annual take of the salmon
fishing harvest due to ongoing problems on the Klamath River.

The two tribes are allowed to take about half the catch of the river's
stock. Over the past several years that total stock has ranged between
30,000 and 50,000 fish, and up to 70,000 fish have been allocated in
certain peak years.

This year, however, the total harvest has been reduced to about 16,800 fish
allowable for harvest, which means that the total for Yurok and Hoopa will
be around 8,400. Yurok will get about 80 percent of that number, while
Hoopa gets the rest.

Mike Orcutt, Hoopa Valley Tribe's director of tribal fisheries, said the
tribe will likely only harvest enough fish for subsistence and ceremonial
purposes and all but shut down any commercial fishing at Yurok.

Troy Fletcher, who has worked with the Yurok tribal fisheries, said that
shutting down commercial fishing for the year at Yurok is not a done deal
because the tribal council has to make an official decision in July.

He also hinted that decision would likely be a mere formality.

"Let's just say with about 99 percent accuracy that [Yurok] commercial
fishing will be shut down for this year," said Fletcher.

Though there are many apparent culprits for the sharp decline in salmon on
the Klamath, one of the biggest problems has been a five-year drought that
has contributed to severely reduced water flows on the river.

Orcutt also blames the federal management of the river, which he said has
contributed to the decrease in water. Much of the water in the upper
Klamath basin was allocated to farmers over the past century.

When those flows were shut down in 2001 as the drought's effects were first
felt, the farmers demonstrated and heightened tensions resulted in ugly
racial incidents. The Bush administration has been roundly criticized by
tribes as well as fishing and environmental interests for keeping the water
flowing to the farmers at the expense of the salmon and other fish species.

Currently, the Bureau of Reclamation has allocated some 70 percent of water
to farmers this year based on April projections.

Many of the fish on the river are diseased. Orcutt estimated that something
on the order of 80 percent of the salmon are affected. He based his
estimate on fish caught for study in federal and tribal traps.

While Orcutt conceded that no scientific link has been established between
the water management and the fish disease, he said what is abundantly clear
is that the low water levels, which warm the temperature of the water, are
adding stress to the fish population.

Another problem, claimed Orcutt, appears to be the damaging result of a
2002 fish kill that claimed an estimated 68,000 fish, mainly Chinook
salmon. Because of salmon migratory patterns and life cycles, the effects
of that die-off are now manifesting as a lack of third-year returns that
would have originated in that doomed 2002 fish school.

"A lot of juvenile fish are not making it to the ocean," said Orcutt.

Tribal fisheries and environmental groups have said the fish kill resulted
from low water flows.

Interestingly, the inverted nature of this year's weather pattern has
brought areas south of the Klamath, which hugs the Oregon border, average
to well above-average rain falls. As a result, the Sacramento River system
in California, filled with melting mountain snow, is expected to see an
abundance of salmon this year.

However, those Sacramento River fish are not available to commercial
fishermen because their stock mixes with the Klamath stock when they are
out at sea. The restrictions on Klamath fish mean that Sacramento River
fish cannot be caught in hopes of reviving the Klamath stocks in what will
hopefully be wetter years. Thus the restrictions will affect a wide area -
from San Francisco north to Coos Bay, Ore.

Speaking of wetter years, Orcutt pointed out there are reasons to be
hopeful. After facing an absolute disaster in early March, the rains have
since picked up. In fact, enough rain has fallen in the Klamath basin over
the last two months to upgrade this year to what Orcutt refers to as "a
wetter dry year," and the federal government is upgrading the river
condition.

Orcutt said he takes these signs as a reason for cautious optimism.

"Maybe this is the low of the downward trend, and maybe we're looking
toward improvement in the future."

Over at Yurok, Fletcher said the current crisis should serve as a wakeup
call.

"It's important to highlight that the tribes work with the other interests
in the [Klamath] basin to finally work on an acceptable long term
solution."