What happens to a fishing culture when there are too few fish?

For generations, members of the Yurok tribe have fished for salmon in the Klamath River in the northwestern corner of California. “Salmon is essential to Yurok ceremonies, for food and for income,” says Lisa Morehouse in a story for KQED’s The California Report that was produced in partnership with FERN. “But this fall, the number of chinook salmon swimming up the Klamath was the lowest on record, threatening the tribe’s entire culture and way of life.”

Fishing was restricted to tribal elders in an effort to let the few returning salmon swim upstream to spawn. At the tribe’s annual salmon festival in August, salmon were cooked in the traditional way, skewered on redwood sticks over a long, narrow fire pit. But the salmon came from Alaska, the first time the tribe has had to purchase fish for its festival, says Oscar Gensaw, who wears a T-shirt that declares him “Fish Boss.”

There are so few salmon in the river that commercial fishing was shut down to protect them. The tribe of 6,000 people is limited to catching just over 600 salmon. Erika Chavez, who works in the tribal fisheries department, says that when salmon are plentiful, they are a prominent part of the diet. She says 10 or 15 fish would carry her grandmother through the year. This year, “she’ll have to deal with deer meat or elk meat or something.”

Tribal members often say their first fishing experience came when they were only a few years old. Paul Van Mechelen says his grandmother told him that he had fish blood. “We’re all fishing people,” he said. Annelia Hillman, a youth social worker, adds:  “When we can’t be in our river, can’t eat our fish, it kind of takes our purpose away.”