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Finding a way to save salmon, the tribe signs a treaty with California

A California tribe has signed an agreement with state and federal agencies to jointly work to bring endangered Chinook salmon back to their traditional breeding grounds upstream of the Shasta Dam, a The deal could advance the tribal leaders’ long-term goal of bringing transplanted fish back from California to New Zealand more than a century ago and still thriving there.

Members of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe have long sought to restore wild salmon populations in the McCloud River north of Redding, where their ancestors once lived. The agreements signed this week officially recognize the tribe for the first time as a partner in efforts to save the endangered winter-running Chinook salmon.

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu . Tribe

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, discusses why she and other members of the tribe wanted to bring salmon from New Zealand to release the fish back into the McCloud River.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“We are very hopeful,” said Caleen Sisk, tribal leader and spiritual leader. “It allows us to have a bigger say in the salmon return process.”

State and federal officials “recognized that they really have to have us as partners,” she said.

“I think it’s going to take people’s knowledge to really restore them,” Sisk said.

She signed the agreements Monday with state and federal fisheries officials at a ceremony next to Lake Shasta, near where the McCloud River flows into the reservoir. After signing, members of the Winnemem tribe Wintu and Pomo dance around the bonfire.

Chinook salmon have not been able to reach the McCloud River since 1942, when the construction of the Shasta Dam prevented fish from swimming upstream of the Sacramento River and blocked off their breeding grounds, causing salmon populations to decline.

Shasta Dam.

Shasta Dam view.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The past three years of extreme drought have taken away a Worse numbers for endangered winter-running trout. At times, the water of the Sacramento River downstream of the Shasta Dam has warmed to the point where it can kill salmon eggs.

Last year, this fish experienced its worst breeding season on record. Recent rain and snow have pushed Lake Shasta to 98% of its maximum capacity, promising better conditions for this year’s trout. But Chinook still faces major threats as global warming leads to more intense droughts.

Scientists have also found that California salmon are suffering in part because lack of thiaminewhich they suspect is happening because the fish are overeating anchovies, which grow in abundance along the coast.

Chinook Salmon is at the heart of the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. They call the salmon Nur.

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 a method of salmon re-stocking that involves developing a “swimming track” for fish to move upstream and downstream around the Shasta Dam.

A layer of pink salmon roe covers a screen.

A view of Chinook salmon eggs raised during the winter before hatching at Livingston Stone National Hatchery.

(Kaitlin Dunham/US Fish and Wildlife Service/Los Angeles Times)

The tribe also wants to use eggs from Chinook salmon that were transplanted into New Zealand more than a century ago. Sisk said she and others believe these fish, because they live in the wild and are adapted to swimming in mountain streams, are better suited to the conditions in the McCloud River than other fish farmed. in hatcheries in California.

Under agree, state and federal agencies have committed to studying the possibility of reintroducing the Chinook from New Zealand. The agreements also call for an analysis of the feasibility of building a fish passage that would allow salmon to move around the dam.

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

“It’s the only way for those salmon to recover their numbers,” she said.

Biologists tracked populations of different schools of salmon in the Sacramento River, each named after the season they returned from the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the endangered winter-running Chinook, there’s the spring-running Chinook, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

At most Chinook runs in the fall and late fall, supporting commercial and recreational fisheries. But this year, the regulators decided closed fishing season along the California coast for the second time in history because of a dramatic drop in salmon populations.

An autumn Chinook salmon swims in the hatchery's rearing pond.

An autumn Chinook salmon swims in a pond at Coleman National Hatchery.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

NOAA’s California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Fisheries has agreed to include the tribe as a “peer” in decisions about efforts to rebuild salmon populations. The tribe has agreed to share traditional ecological knowledge, just as their ancestors did with fisheries expert Livingston Stone, who founded the Association. first Chinook salmon hatchery on the McCloud River in 1872.

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

Chuck Bonham, the department’s director, said the “co-management” agreement was long overdue.

“We cannot change the mistakes made in the past, but we have an obligation to make it better in the present,” Bonham said. “With this deal, we are giving life to the McCloud River.”

Cathy Marcinkevage said the tribe’s “co-management” with the NOAA Fisheries Administration came about “because together we identified both the risks to the rest of the population, but also the opportunities they presented to us. I had to really regroup and set a new route for salmon recovery,” said Cathy Marcinkevage. the agency’s assistant regional administrator.

Last year, tribe members worked with state and federal biologists on a test project on the McCloud River, stocking thousands of winter-running juveniles brought in from a nearby hatchery. By mid-December, more than 1,600 fish had been captured, put in aerated coolers and transported by truck downstream of the dam, where they were released to continue their journey.

State officials have also test a system to collect baby trout from Lake Shasta.

Plans for this year have yet to be decided, but the new arrangements “give us more confidence that we can make a similar joint effort to move winter running to McCloud again in the coming days.” this year,” said Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fishery.

Daniel Cordalis, co-principal of Ridges to Riffles, an indigenous conservation group, said the agreements provide an example of how government agencies should work with Indigenous leaders to restore the system. Ecological.

A woman stands beside a creek.

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, scans a creek for signs of salmon. .

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“We think a lot of restoration work can and must be done with the support of the indigenous communities there,” said Cordalis. “Involving them in all of these restoration projects and letting them have a say in it is vitally important to the longevity and durability of the restoration.”

Sisk said the willingness of government officials including the tribe represents a major shift.

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

Sisk said she hopes to be able to reintroduce fish from New Zealanders within three years.

“We need to think creatively,” she said.

Sisk said she hopes government biologists will focus on how to “keep fish wild” to help them survive. She said she also hopes that once the salmon are returned to the McCloud River, the tribe’s 126 members can also regain a home and thrive along the river.

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

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