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Q&A: Reporter Lucy Sherriff on the Yurok Tribe’s fight to save ancestral salmon populations

Klamath River earlier this year.
Stormy Staats
Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative
Klamath River earlier this year.

This year the Klamath River and its tributaries sawa catastrophic fish kill that has all but eliminated the native juvenile salmon population. The Yurok Tribe is fighting for the health of the river and its salmon.

NSPR's Alec Stutson spoke with Lucy Sherriff, who has been reporting on the issue for the news nonprofit The Fuller Project.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

On the cause of the fish kill

The fish kill is caused by bacteria which happens in fish that are stressed. And these fish are stressed because of the state of the river — the river is not healthy. And what usually happens every year is there is a flushing flow. There are literally gates that are opened from the Klamath Basin, which will allow a certain amount of water to flush through the river downstream, and that flushes out this bacteria. That didn't happen this year.The Bureau of Reclamation decided not to conduct a flushing flow until much, much later in the season. And so this huge fish kill happened because there wasn't this flushing flow to clean (the bacteria) out the river.

On the health impacts caused by a lack of salmon

I spoke to Georgiana, who is a Yurok woman living on the reservation. She's bringing up her children: her oldest was brought up on a diet of salmon, her youngest was not. She says she can physically see the difference. (She's) talking about weight and physical health, she can really see the difference between her oldest child and her youngest child.

And then there's the other aspect, which is that the salmon provides a really valuable source of income when the river is healthy. When the salmon are healthy, the Yurok tribe has a commercial salmon business and that brings in much needed income. So not having the salmon to eat and not having the salmon to sell to buy healthy food is really really impacting their health.

On the ways the tribe are fighting for the health of the river

There is a really big fight happening to get these dams removed from the river. And their fight takes the form of activism, raising awareness, (putting) public pressure on. (They're) trying to tackle it from all different sides. And the main reason for them wanting to remove these dams is because they want to try and restore the river to this free flowing river that it used to exist as. (The tribe) strongly believe(s) — and so do a lot of other scientists and experts — that removing these dams is going to help the river recover.

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Alec Stutson grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Radio Journalism, 20th/21st Century Literature, and a minor in Film Studies. He is a huge podcast junkie, as well as a movie nerd and musician.