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Pacific Northwest, USA

Raymond Mattz, Yurok tribal elder

They tell me if the dams are out and we get three inches of water this river will come back to life the way it was in the early hundreds. I ain’t really got any words for it any more, you know. I mean fighting, fighting here and just getting where it’s I don’t know we got to do something about it. . I love this river. I love being here. I like to see my grand kids grow up and see what I seen. I’d like to see it before my time.

Tony Anello, fisherman

Things are going to have to change. Otherwise this industry, (you) might as well just forget about it. It’s no hope if they keep continuing this way.

Well so far we’ve been out about five and a half hours since the beginning of the day. Well the sea lion got about $400 and we have about $80. So it’s one of those things, fishing is fishing. We’re doing the best we can.

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

What’s happened is rather than the dams coming out the managers and the government have generally reacted by shutting down fishing which in the case of the salmon is the least of the salmon’s problems.

Steve Palumbi, Stanford University

The funny thing about that problem is it didn’t have to be a problem. We created that problem by cutting off the flow of the Klamath at exactly the wrong time for the salmon.

Other people needed that water. Other people took it. But the salmon needed it. The people who fished the salmon needed it. And now the people that fished the salmon hundreds of miles away need those fish.

Shrouded in early morning fog, there is a small spit of land tucked away in a remote corner of Northern California.This is where the Klamath River meets the Pacific. Working these waters are members of the Yurok Tribe, descendants of the indigenous people who thrived in this part of the world over 8,000 years ago.

Klamath River

Klamath River

Since daybreak the tribesmen have been preparing their nets and traps, waiting for the salmon to begin their upstream migration, to the spawning grounds of their birth.  After hours of waiting, the Yurok fishermen know that something is wrong, that something is keeping the salmon from coming home. Even the sea lions and gulls are becoming impatient.

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Pacing the shore is Raymond Mattz. He's a tribal elder who's fished these waters since he was a boy. Today he's concerned about the state of the local fishery. “It’s really hard on the native people here,” he says. “I was born and raised on this river and I fought for the fishing rights here and I seen this river, a lot of things happen in this river. A lot of things.”

Raymond Mattz, Yurok tribial elder

Raymond Mattz, Yurok tribal elder

Once, not long ago, vast stands of ponderosa and redwood forests surrounded the Klamath River. Its crystal clear waters helped make it the third richest salmon river in the country. Its bounty sustained the indigenous people who fished along these shores. This was clearly a healthy ecosystem in balance with nature, until the early 1900s.

That's when government agencies started to rewire the Klamath watershed. Forests were clear-cut, wetland ecosystems were destroyed, a series of dams were built to generate electricity, and to divert enormous amounts of water to help tens thousands of homesteading farmers irrigate their land. For decades there was just enough water for agriculture and the salmon. But in 2001 an historic two-year drought hit the Pacific Northwest with a vengeance. There was not nearly enough water to satisfy everyone's needs.

Suddenly anger and frustration broke out as farmers and native American fishermen battled over water rights. It soon became a political issue. Ultimately the federal government made a decision. The indigenous tribes lost the fight, the farmers got the water, and the Klamath river was reduced to a trickle.

On the morning of September 19, 2002, though there was very little water in the river, the salmon started their spawning migration. Within hours, suffocating in toxic water sapped of oxygen, the fish started to struggle, then they started to die.

Soon hundreds of salmon lined the shores. Day after day they kept washing up. Three days later as many as 80,000 fish were dead. It was one of the largest salmon die-offs in American history.

Today, the Yurok fishermen finally netted a spawning salmon after hours of waiting. But this is one fish that won't end up on their dinner table, instead it will quickly be turned over to a team of biologists.

“We’re conducting a study of adult Chinook salmon migration in the Klamath river watershed. We’re trying to describe their migration patterns and understand what’s driving those patterns. Especially in terms of the temperature and flow of the river.”

Josh Strange, biologist

The story of the Klamath doesn't end here, at the mouth of the river. Rather it's about how the health of an entire river ecosystem, extending 700 miles inland, can affect those trying to make a living catching salmon in the deep ocean.

One hundred miles to the south of the Klamath river, fifteen-foot waves have been battering a small fishing troller since first light. Tony Anello is also in search of salmon.

Fishing has been Tony’s life since he was a boy. His son Mark works the lines, setting the lures, pulling them in, hoping for a strike, scanning the horizon, looking for signs of migrating salmon. It's an endless cycle. But after hours of work, father and son have nothing to show for their efforts. The few strikes they do get are lost to sea lions that trail the boat.

Tony Anello, fisherman

Tony Anello, fisherman

Tony and Mark are surrounded by an ocean almost empty of other fishermen. Most gave up when federal regulations restricted where and when they could fish for salmon. Though it was hoped that these restrictions would allow the fish to rebound, it made it almost impossible for the fishermen to earn a living.

When they finally land a salmon, Tony already knows that this will not be a good day for fishing. They know that unless the dams are removed from the river, the Klamath can never be healthy, the fish die-offs will continue, and the salmon could disappear from the river within a few years.

After years of public protest, federal agencies are finally pressing for environmental reforms to ease the Klamath River problem. But tensions remain high while time ticks by and good intentions have not resulted in any actions. Tony and Mark are no different than the tribesmen of the Klamath. All they can do is wait for someone to fix the river, to clean it up, so the salmon can finally come home.


Read more about The State of the Ocean's Animals:
Introduction | Antarctica | China | Florida | Japan | Monterey | Pacific Northwest


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