California’s Drought Continues to Harm Native Tribes and Fishermen

Author: Kristine Wong | Published: February 3, 2017 

Native American communities have often embraced fish as an integral part of their diet and culture. For the Hoopa Valley people, a Native American tribe in Northern California not far from the Oregon border, that fish is salmon.

“We’re river people,” said tribal member Brittani Orona. “We depend a lot on water and the life that’s in the water for both our physical and cultural sustenance.” Salmon has historically been a staple of the tribe’s diet, as well as what members eat at Hoopa Valley “world renewal” dances, when they dance by the water or in a boat.

California’s historic drought—which has only just ended in Northern California after six years—has had profound impacts on food and culture for native tribes. Record-low numbers of salmon last year put many tribal members in a tough spot.

“We interviewed tribal fishermen, and they said for the first time they couldn’t catch any salmon” for their ceremonies, said Laura Feinstein, an ecologist and senior research associate at water think tank the Pacific Institute. “They had to use chicken instead.”

A new report from the Pacific Institute shows how communities particularly dependent on fish are especially at risk from the California drought. The report concludes that these groups have been affected by state policy that does not go far enough to protect non-endangered, commercially fished species.

“We wanted to talk about the connections between California water and fish beyond ‘fish vs. farms,’ because that framework ignores the people who rely on this fish for economic and cultural reasons,” said Feinstein.

As it stands, Feinstein said the state focuses its environment-related water policy on complying with the Endangered Species Act—which protects federally listed endangered runs of Chinook Salmon such as the California Coastal Chinook—through measures like maintaining adequate water flows.

Key to expanding the discussion, Feinstein said, is understanding how the California drought has affected the non-endangered species of salmon that tribes and commercial fishermen rely on. “There’s quite a bit of research on how the drought has affected the endangered salmon, but not about how it affects the non-endangered [salmon] runs,” she said.

In addition to its conclusion about commercial and tribal fishermen, the report also found that disadvantaged populations—low-income households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental pollution—have suffered the most from the water shortage.

In recent years, these Californians experienced a greater number of household water outages (due to lack of supply), despite the fact that the utility companies charged them standard drought fees that do not account for household income level.

Drought Challenges for Salmon and Salmon Fishermen

The salmon in California have a number of factors working against them. Diminished stream flows, caused in part by the Klamath River Dam, as well as water diverted by other dams and structures, block the fish as they attempt to swim upstream from the ocean to their historical spawning habitats, the report concluded. Additionally, higher water temperatures has caused disease outbreaks among salmon in the Klamath River in the last year, according to tribal fishermen.