West Coast Water Justice

Klamath Dam Removal, a Confluence of Indigenous and Western Sciences

April 09, 2022
Klamath Dam Removal, a Confluence of Indigenous and Western Sciences
West Coast Water Justice
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West Coast Water Justice
Klamath Dam Removal, a Confluence of Indigenous and Western Sciences
Apr 09, 2022

Keith Parker, Senior Fisheries Biologist for the Yurok Tribe explains some of the basics that make up a healthy fishery and river ecosystem.  We learn about the different salmon runs and basic salmon genetics. He shares his background in Indigenous ecological knowledge and Western science and how together they inform the Klamath Dam Removal process.  Keith makes it clear that the loss of these fish and traditional foods are as much a social justice issue as a biological issue. To lose species like salmon is more than just a loss of biodiversity, it is a loss of cultural heritage.

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Show Notes Transcript

Keith Parker, Senior Fisheries Biologist for the Yurok Tribe explains some of the basics that make up a healthy fishery and river ecosystem.  We learn about the different salmon runs and basic salmon genetics. He shares his background in Indigenous ecological knowledge and Western science and how together they inform the Klamath Dam Removal process.  Keith makes it clear that the loss of these fish and traditional foods are as much a social justice issue as a biological issue. To lose species like salmon is more than just a loss of biodiversity, it is a loss of cultural heritage.

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Support the Show.

Klamath Dam Removal, a Confluence of Indigenous and Western Sciences

Fri, 4/29 1:42PM • 53:58


fish, salmon, Klamath river, river, Klamath, dams, ocean, run, genetics, basin, people, spring, spawn, called, Chinook, coho, rainbow trout, hatchery, fisheries, ecosystem 


Natalie Kilmer, Keith Parker

Natalie Kilmer  00:15

You're listening to West Coast Water Justice, where we talk about water in the Western United States. I'm your host Natalie Kilmer. And in this episode, we hear from Keith Parker, senior fisheries biologist from Yurok Tribe. Thanks for joining us Keith.

Keith Parker  00:31

Hi, my name is Keith Parker, and I'm a senior fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe up in Northern California. And I received both my undergraduate and my graduate degree from Cal Poly Humbolt, big shout out to them. I was really blessed to be awarded both the National Science Foundation fellowship and Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation Fellowship, which actually paid for my entire graduate school education. I'm very grateful. I'm a tribal member of the Yurok Tribe of California. I'm also part Hoopa, Karuk, Tolowa, and Yurok, but I'm enrolled Yurok. For people that are not familiar, the Yurok tribe is the largest tribe in California by population and I think by area, either we're tied or very close to the Hupa tribe by area. Our reservation is 44 miles long, in two different counties, in Del Norte and Humboldt County, and it's a mile on each side of the river. So actually, our reservation is 88 square miles, which I think is larger than the county of San Francisco, we have about 6500 tribal members. 

Natalie Kilmer 01:38 

That's pretty big. We'd like to hear more about your work on the Klamath and West Coast fisheries and why it's important to you. 

Keith Parker  01:45

The work that I do as a Tribal Scientist, it really is emerging. It's at the intersection of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and western ecological knowledge. You hear people say TEK, that's just the abbreviation for Traditional Ecological Knowledge. The two paradigms are often diametrically opposed to each other. So a lot of times my job is being a translator of science, depending on the audience, I'm talking to. You know, if I'm talking to people within my tribe, or elders, or tribal council, as opposed to speaking, say to a federal agency, or a group of scientists. So a lot of times I'm translating back and forth and trying to bridge the gaps and understanding between our TEK and western ecological knowledge, it's really important work. I've had many jobs in my life, even a couple of previous careers. But the work I do now, it's really my calling, because for Indigenous people of the Klamath River Basin such as myself. The river really is our grocery store. In fact, the closest grocery store to the Yurok Tribal headquarters is like 25 miles away through some of the worst roads in the state. There's like three stoplights there right now with a massive slide. Like I said, we are river people, we are salmon, people, the massive destruction of the Klamath Basin ecosystem has significantly impacted the food security and the food sovereignty of river inhabitants, such as us. You know, some people might ask, well, what's food sovereignty? And we'll, I think was Valerie Segrest of the Muckleshoot tribe said it really eloquently that; food sovereignty is basically the right of a community to define its own diet, be allowed to shape our own food system with access to all of our historical and traditional foods. So, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and other tribal people on the Klamath River Basin are some of the most food-insecure communities in the United States caused by poverty, and a lack of access to fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, and now our traditional foods like salmon sturgeon, lamprey that have been provided to us by the Creator since time immemorial, well, they're nearly wiped out. At the core of tribal sovereignty really, is food sovereignty. Because no matter where your people are from all around the globe, food in any culture is a foundational part of that, including our culture. It's because these traditional foods like salmon, they feed much more than our physical bodies, traditional foods feed our spirits, really, it's because these foods represent our living link with the land and exemplify our relationship with the land and the river. Like the old saying goes, you are what you eat, and we truly are what we eat and we eat the earth. And we value that relationship that we have with the river and the Earth. Food, language, ceremony, art, and culture, they all evolve synchronously, not independently in a culture, our humanity is completely intertwined with nature and what nature provides, much like the intertwining of roots that we use to make our baskets. So, the bottom line for me and to answer your question, for Native people, fish recovery, like on the Klamath River is simultaneously a social justice and a cultural issue as much as it is a biological issue from my science training because, from a TEK perspective, the possible loss of these keystone species not only represents a loss of biodiversity, but it's a loss of our cultural heritage.

Natalie Kilmer  05:40

Can you also define what a fishery is, and what makes up a healthy fishery? Maybe some examples of biodiversity? 

Keith Parker  05:49

Well, there's numerous different types of fisheries, the type of fishery that you partake in, it would define it for you. There's traditional fisheries, like Indigenous ones, like the ones that I'm talking about a little bit today, the Yurok one. There's also commercial fisheries, which would be like your ocean trolling and netting. And then you've got recreational sport fisheries, people that buy fishing licenses to go fish from a bank or their boat. And then you have industrial fisheries, those big ships that go out and trawl for fish, and then they literally process them right on board and can them. And then you have even subsistence fisheries for non-natives like in Alaska. And there's other fisheries as well. And then, the second part of your question was what basically makes up a healthy fishery or river system, I think it's balance. A healthy natural fishery is made up of a balanced overlap of many different ecosystems, like water quality, both freshwater and marine, because anadromous fish, which are fish like; salmon and steelhead, that are born in freshwater, and then they go out to the ocean. And then they come back to the river and spawn and die. You know, those are called anadromous fish. So those types of fish, salmon, steelhead, sturgeon Pacific lamprey, they live in both environments during their life. So that's super important. A thriving forest and plant life too, such as riparian plants, because riparian plants are the ones that grow right on the edge of a stream and actually grow out maybe even over a stream. Those things are definitely directly connected to fish health. So these fish that we're talking about, they connect the ocean to the headwater streams. What else goes hundreds of miles upriver, spawns and dies and transmits all of those marine-derived nutrients that are in its body that it built from eating out in the ocean to those headwater streams. So this is a balance, right? This is a cycle that occurs, these fish leave the river as juveniles really small, they go out in the ocean, they get really large from eating squid, herring, and anchovies and krill. They absorb all of those marine-derived nutrients. That's why everything goes to the ocean. Why would you take the risk of going into the ocean? You're risking predation and disease to eat all the really good stuff out there.  So you can grow and come back in three, four or five years and weigh 30, 40 up to 100 pounds, (there's Alaskan Chinook that have been caught that are over 100 pounds) and swim back upriver and spawn and die. Tons and tons of those fish and they're like little protein packages, and inside their bodies are all those marine-derived nutrients. And they get drug out into the forest floor by dozens of species; mink, fishers, otter, raccoon and bear and they eat them. And they typically only eat the guts out and they'll eat the brain out, a lot of times they leave the majority of the fish. So that fish decays over time and is absorbed into the plant life, into those riparian plants. And then those riparian plants, they grow, and they provide leaf cover right over the top of those headwater streams where those salmon are spawning, and it creates shade, which lowers the water temperature, and then lots of terrestrial insects make their homes on those leaves. And then the wind comes up and some of them fall off and they fall in the water and then fish get to eat them. And then those riparian plants also create bank stability by their roots. So there's not erosion into that stream to fill in the gravel spawning beds. And then if you have more plants, what do you have, you've got more deer, if you have more deer, what do you have, more mountain lion. So, you see this ripple effect, this balanced system that has occurred over time, this connectivity between the marine and the headwater that's facilitated by these anadromous fish, and there's really no other fish that can fill that niche. How else would you get millions of pounds of marine-derived nutrients hundreds of miles upriver, birds not going to carry them or anything like that. These are the type of examples of what creates a healthy fishery. It's basically all of the overlap of these ecosystems and the balance between them. It isn't by default, but it's by design that some of the oldest living life forms on the planet like coastal redwood trees, which are all around me here where I live, and salmon overlap, because for millions of years, every year salmon return, and they're depositing those little protein packs of marine-derived nutrients, which are taken in by the conifer forests. We knew several decades ago, that there's marine-derived phosphorus and nitrogen in the core samples of redwood trees. If you take out a map, and you look at all the conifer forests and the Pacific Northwest, and you overlay all the salmon return rivers, they overlay on each other for a reason, again, balance and overlap of these ecosystems. They all work together, when when we do rehabilitation, and when we do restoration, we need to remember that and focus on the big picture, which is these ecosystem interactions.

Natalie Kilmer   11:15

You know, I hear about keystone species. And I think you mentioned that on the Klamath, and how are they doing? Maybe you can just explain that relationship a little bit more. Also, what's impacting their health?

Keith Parker  11:29

Yeah, I mean, the anadromous fish species that we're talking about like salmon, sturgeon, Pacific lamprey, and even eulachon which are now wiped out, haven't seen one in years. They've been keystone, biological, and like I discussed cultural keystone species for 10s of 1000s of years. And the definition of a keystone species is basically something that can't fill that niche. And these things I just named, they definitely are not replaceable, which is why they've been in the fossil record for hundreds of millions of years. Pacific lamprey, some of the oldest fossil records 500 million years ago. Same with sturgeon, sturgeon and Pacific lamprey, for instance, are chordates. There's only like, three species like that, that are left that they're still here that have been around for all these hundreds of millions of years, just like lamprey, sturgeon and hagfish and they're still here. They still persist. The biological reasons, the cultural reasons, they can't be overstated. Whole species have come and gone, dinosaurs came and left and yet some of these fish species are still here and unchanged, but they're not doing very well. There's been massive reductions in the amount of returning fish. If you look at the reintroduction document for Upper Klamath, you know, after the dams come out, you can see on there that fall Chinook are over 90% wiped out spring Chinook are over 98% wiped out. Pacific lamprey are over 80% wiped out, coho, and the list goes on. There's just been a massive destruction in habitat, and a lot of terrible things have happened on the Klamath River Basin, which has caused this. They'd lost their spawning and their rearing habitat from an excessive number of dams which cut off hundreds of miles of historical spawning grounds, water diversions on a massive scale to the point of causing the largest adult salmon kill-off in United States history back in 2002. The diseases such as Ich and C. shasta, which are exacerbated by low flows and high water temperatures. The blue-green algae blooms made up of Microcystins producing cyanobacteria, which is one of the most deadly forms of bacteria on the face of the earth, naturally occurring. All the historic logging practices, which caused huge erosion issues, which amounted to a lot of sediment went and filled in their spawning grounds. And then the deforestation, you know, all the riparian plants protection that I talked about earlier that are now gone. And then when you get low flows, you have high water temperature because of the high sunlight penetration. When that water gets really warm, warmer water holds less oxygen. So then the fish, they don't have the dissolved oxygen they need and so they can just suffocate. So a lot of different things.

Natalie Kilmer   14:30

There's basically 10% of the historic numbers of these fish, is that right?

Keith Parker  14:36

Less than that, like spring Chinook, there's only 2% estimated of their historic runs. The only reason we even have a spring salmon run is because of the hatchery component. For instance, for the last four years, I think 2017 to present one of the most important wild return rivers in the basin, which is the South Fork Trinity. They haven’t had more than 20, spring Chinook return to spawn. And then on the Upper Klamath side, the Salmon River is the super important one for wild origin, spring-run Chinook. And last year, I think 95 returned, like 89 adults and 6 jacks, like under 100 fish. So you know, if it wasn't for the hatchery component, we wouldn't even have spring Chinook.

Natalie Kilmer   15:27

And so the numbers that you're talking about they were able to get past the four dams?

Keith Parker  15:33

No, all of that's just below the dams. Yeah.

Natalie Kilmer   15:37

They’re almost gone. Just barely hanging on, and then what are you expecting when these dams are removed? Do you think they'll bounce back?

Keith Parker  15:45

I do believe they'll bounce back. Absolutely. There's a big difference between rehabilitation and restoration. Do I believe that they can be rehabilitated, the basin can absolutely. Do I believe it can be restored to its historic state, probably not. But we can rehabilitate the basin and get them definitely way up in numbers. Can they come back? It really just depends because salmon, in particular, they're called natal spawners, meaning they return and spawn to the very location they were born at. So over time, when salmon do that, that causes speciation, making salmon from different parts of the Klamath River Basin, genetically distinct. So like in this basin, we have two distinct what's called evolutionarily significant units or ESUs that are managed. There's the ones below the confluence of the Trinity River, out to the ocean and actually goes up into some of the rivers in Southern Oregon called the SONCC fish, which is the Southern Oregon, Northern California Coastal fish. And then you have the other genetic population called the UKTR, which is the Upper Klamath, Trinity River fish. So these genetic families are just that they have different genetics, they don't reproduce together. With modern hatchery techniques and crossing of fish, we may be able to recover some of the genetics if they were to disappear completely. For instance, like teasing out the spring-run fish, there's a spring-run gene allele. In the summer-run fish, they're called heterozygotes. If you crossed fish effectively, you could tease out a pure strain of spring Chinook again. If you remember, like from high school genetics, with your Punnett squares, you have a dominant and recessive gene. So a lot of the summer fish have one fall gene, which is like a dominant gene. And then they'll have one recessive spring gene at a specific gene location. So that means that if two of those fish are crossed, if you remember, like from high school, you know, genetics like I said, you have a one in four chance of like creating a pure run spring Chinook where there's those two recessive genes that will come together, and create a spring-spring. So it is possible to tease out things like that. So that's the good news. But quite frankly, though, if certain basins like let's say that the Blue Creek fish which are extremely important to the lower river of the Klamath River, they're extremely unique fish, they have way different run timing, let's say those fish were wiped out completely. It's, it's highly unlikely that we could ever recover the Blue Creek strain again because they're just not carried by any of the other tributaries in the basin. And they're so genetically distinct, all of the different fish runs that they don't mix well. Over time, because they’re natal homers, they spawn with others in their population. There's a very low stray rate. So like, let's say a Salmon River fish doesn't spawn with a Blue Creek fish, for instance, because there are different and very unique, distinct genetic populations of fish.

Natalie Kilmer   19:00

You're getting into some of the differences between the salmon so, I have been wondering about the difference between Chinook and coho and the different runs in the most simple way possible.

Keith Parker  19:15

So like trout and salmon and steelhead. They're all part of the same family called Salmonidae. Genetically rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species, okay, but they lead really different lives. It's like one fish, but there's two forms are ecotypes. So there's like the resident form that stays in freshwater and never migrates to the ocean, those are rainbow trout. Then there's an anadromous form that migrates to the ocean, and then comes back to the river and spawns. Those are called steelhead. But genetically, they're the same. There's no tests that we can do using genetics that tells us which ecotype those are going to be which life forms, those are going to be, it's similar in a way to like jack salmon, some, many of them come back as two-year-olds. We don't know why yet. We just know that that's the way it is. So for years, researchers have they've been unable to identify the specific traits that will determine whether a fish will exhibit the ocean migration or the freshwater residency. So that lack of definitive evidence is compelled managers just to treat the species as a single population

Natalie Kilmer   20:33

to treat steelhead and rainbow trout as a single population. 

Keith Parker  20:36

Yeah, absolutely. 

Natalie Kilmer

Okay, but they look different, right? 

Keith Parker 20:39

Well, they look pretty similar. If you catch them in the river before they migrate out before a steelhead leaves the river, and you look at all the juveniles and you can't really tell them apart. But obviously, when the steelhead migrates into the ocean and returns, it looks very much different, typically much larger in size, obviously, because it's been feeding on extremely high-calorie prey items, like krill, shrimp, anchovies, herring and all of that. Whereas the rainbow trout, which stays in freshwater resident doesn't have access to that type of diet. So there's definitely a huge size difference and coloration differences too.

Natalie Kilmer   21:22

And then are there genetic differences between steelhead and rainbow trout in different watersheds?

Keith Parker  21:28

Yes, absolutely. They have the same difference ESUs. And when I say ESU, it was developed years ago, it's basically different genetic families applied to fish. It's the ESA, the Endangered Species Act, distinct population segments, DPSs I think, is what its referred to. An ESU is just a fish form of a DPS. So if you read the Endangered Species Act, if you're dealing with like, you know, wolves or whatever, Grizzly Bear, they divide them up by these distinct population segments. So an ESU an evolutionarily significant unit is the same thing, just apply it to fish. So, all up and down the West Coast of the United States, well, you know, all over the whole country, but the area that I work in, all of these different fish we're talking about are managed based on their ESU that they're placed in. And that is determined, by their genetic makeup.

Natalie Kilmer   22:24

Okay, so rainbow trout in Oakland would be different than a rainbow trout up in the Trinity Basin. 

Keith Parker  22:25

Absolutely. Oh, yeah, absolutely. 

Natalie Kilmer   22:26

I mean, I have a very limited understanding, but I'm understanding that, you know, rainbow trout, salmon and steelhead are all somewhat related, like you said, but then salmon kind of are on their own trajectory. Can you explain that and tell us a little bit more about the different runs like the spring and fall Chinook and the coho?

Keith Parker  22:57

So like the spring-run Chinook, hence the name, spring-run, they run very early in the year, like on the Klamath River, they often start running in March or April, and they migrate into the far upper reaches of the basin, they'll go hundreds of miles. Whereas the fall-run fish, they enter the river in late July, early August, and they migrate to the lower and the middle reaches of the basin. Then there's also a summer-run salmon, that's what we call them. Growing up as a kid, as a tribal fisherman, we always knew about the summer-runs. And they tend to possess the genetics of both spring and fall-run ecotypes. I kind of touched on that earlier. But let's just say that there's these middle fish kind of in the summer that carry genetic information, similar to, you know, spring and fall. So basically, when the spring-run fish run early, and these fall fish run later in the year, over time, they've been doing this for millions of years, that creates this temporal and physical separation. Temporal, meaning time, there's this time separation and there's a physical separation distance-wise. So it's limited the amount of interbreeding that's occurred between spring and fall Chinook. So it's created these very distinct spring and fall genotypes. So, there's been a unique area of the Chinook salmon genome that we call it a RoSA, which is just an abbreviation for a region of strongest association. And one of them in particular for salmon was discovered at UC Davis by Dr. Mike Miller and his Ph.D. student Tasha Thompson, but it's a gene location called GREB1L. It's been found to provide nearly perfect diagnosis of a spring-run, a fall-run or a spring-fall heterozygote or summer salmon like I was talking about. The pure spring strain, the pure fall strain, or the ones that are a mixture that we call heterozygotes. But the spring-run Chinook that run early, like in the March or April, they’re something of a paradox. It's often called premature migration by a lot of scientists, it's because the fish enter early in the year and their gonadal development, their eggs are in a very immature state. If you ever catch one, and you're cleaning it, you can clearly see that the female egg mass of a spring Chinook is often no bigger than a trout egg mass. So this early runtime reduces their growth opportunities in the ocean because they're feeding less, it compels them to occupy much less productive freshwater habitats, because they go way up the river, in early spring, and there's less food up there, exposes them to extremes of high flow from the snow melt- off. They also now have a prolonged exposure to disease and pronation because they're in the river much longer. So they come in in the spring, and they live in the river all spring, all summer, and they don't spawn until the fall when the fall fish come in. But there's definitely an advantage to this specific spawning because they get access to spawning and rearing habitats that are difficult for the fall-run fish to access. Like I talked about earlier, the fall fish don't seem to be able to make it up to those upriver areas. For one reason is the summer flows come, especially on the Klamath River, we get really low flows, and in the summer and late fall. And now there's a lot of boulders, there's waterfalls that weren't there before that the spring fish were able to get over but the fall fish can't. So that's created that physical and temporal barrier. So there's trade-offs and his life history strategies like and everything else. But the spring-run historically is thought to be the largest run on the Klamath River. So pre-european contact before there were dams and hatcheries. The spring run was the largest run, but over time with hatcheries and stuff like that they've altered the runtiming of the fish, they focused more on the fall fish. And therefore now the predominant run in the Klamath River Basin is the fall-run Chinook. Plus you've taken away the big advantage of being a spring Chinook by building the dam. I mean, if you were built genetically, and phenotypically, meaning what you look like your runtiming, your body structure, and you put a dam there and you don't allow them to swim the additional 200 miles that they're built to swim. You've taken away a huge advantage of their life history because I didn't mention earlier but these Chinook salmon are also they're really thick football-shaped. They have higher lipid content than a fall fish. So they're made for swimming long distances, and they have the energy reserves for that, and they can swim against the massive snow melt-off that we used to see before climate change has occurred. But then Iron Gate hatchery was built on the Lower Klamath at like river mile, I think 160. And now these fish that normally went all the way up through Klamath Falls, Upper Klamath Lake, and they would ultimately end up on the would the Wood, Williamson in the Sprag Rivers and go all the way over into Eastern Oregon. They can't do that anymore. So you've taken away like I said, that advantage of being a springer. And I think that's one reason that they declined so rapidly as well.

Natalie Kilmer   28:31

Okay, so that's the Chinook salmon. And then what about coho? 

Keith Parker  28:36

So coho have a completely different life history. They tend to run later in the year, about the time when the Chinook salmon on the Klamath River Basin start to wane off, usually around September 20th, around that period, is when the coho start showing up in numbers. And they'll run all the way into December. Yeah, so they run a little bit later and in our basin anyway, there is not like a spring and a fall coho run type.

Natalie Kilmer   29:03

So there's just one coho that kind of takes up September to December and that's one run. 

Keith Parker  29:09


Natalie Kilmer   29:10


Keith Parker  29:11

And we're at the very southern end of the range for coho if you go up to Alaska or British Columbia or Washington, coho behavior can be different. For instance, in Alaska, I know they spend two years in the river before they migrate out to the ocean. Whereas like down here, with Chinook, they spend part of their first year in the river before they migrate. And then up there, they spend more time, they spend two years because the water is so much colder. So that retards their growth. They have to stay in the river longer to put on size before they migrate.

Natalie Kilmer   29:42

Wow. And salmon only spawn once.

Keith Parker  29:45

Pacific salmon are Yeah, they're called semelparous, which means they spawn one time and die, but steelhead they’re iteroparous, so they actually can spawn multiple times. So they'll spawn, go back out to the ocean, come back up in future years. It's not necessarily consecutively, they don't necessarily come up every year they can. But it's not totally understood actually, their full life history of how often they come up in their lifetime, but they spawn multiple times. Other anadromous fish also in the Klamath River Basin like sturgeon, they're also multi-spawners. In fact, they've spawned on multiple rivers they can be born in the Klamath and spawn up in the Rogue and the Elk in the Sixes. And they're partial spawners Pacific lamprey, they're also like salmon, they're semelparous, they spawn once and die, the eels.

Natalie Kilmer   30:36

So when the dams come down the salmon, they'll just know to go past there, even though their parents never had that opportunity.

Keith Parker  30:45

It's funny depends who you talk to, you hear that, you know, people say to me all the time, that are kind of oppose a dam removal, they'll say, “hey, you know, if we remove these dams, it's not going to do anything, these salmon, haven't been past some of these points in 100 years”. Because you got the Iron Gate dam, which is the last dam to go up, which is in the 1960s, but you got Copco 1 and Copco 2 above that, and then the Boil dam on the Oregon side. You know, but some of these dams have been here for 100 years. But I don't agree with that. I think that's really an arrogant statement. It's part of our problem as modern humans of thinking that we can, you know, manage the earth and manage these species. And that's really not our place. And that's that difference, again, between TEK and western ecological knowledge is that we don't have dominion over nature, we're part of nature. So my take on it is, is that you cannot erase millions of years of these salmon migrating with 100 years of a dam. If the light in your office was on for like a whole month, continuously, and you walked in and just flicked it off and on as quick as you could, comparative wise, that's how long modern humans have been here compared to how long these salmon had been here doing what they do, for literally millions of years. We know and I know as a person who works with genetics is that all species carry recessive genes inside them, they might not be expressed. So some people have brown hair. Some people have red hair, but they might carry a recessive gene for a different hair color. These salmon are no different, they can carry recessive genes also. So for instance, like the spring-run Chinook, I was telling you about two fall-run fish that are pure fall fish could never make a springer because they don't carry the genetics. But those summer salmon that I was telling you about they carry one of each gene, they could produce either fall or spring. So as long as we have fish like that, that are around that are still carrying some of the old genetics. They're like little bank accounts, right? They're like little repositories. So with a little help from human beings, maybe with doing some research, hatcheries up there, say in Klamath Falls, where we target how we cross fish, we can tease out some of these recessive genes that appear to be lost, but they're not lost. They're just not expressed. And that's a really important thing to understand about genetics is that we all carry recessive genes that may not express themselves in us, but they may express themselves in our children or our grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Natalie Kilmer   33:30

How genetically distinct are the Klamath salmon?

Keith Parker  33:34

Well, they're super unique and as well as enduring. I mean, everything that modern humans have thrown at them water diversions, dams with no fish ladder, destructive logging and mining practices, poor hatchery practices, introduction of outside basin fish. All of it has caused lethally high water temperatures, low water flows explosion of lethal diseases like Ich and C. shasta, filling into their spawning gravel sites from erosion. Blue-green algae blooms, low dissolved oxygen, and even the largest adult salmon fish kill in the history of the United States when 68,000 of these fish died. Everything we’ve thrown at them, yet they persist, yet they still come. Yet last year 1000s of them returned. That's how special they are. They're like little tanks. And thank God they are. And now climate change. Right? And we haven't just thrown really bad stuff at them in the river. What about all the bad stuff in the ocean? What about the huge amount of algae blooms that are occurring in the ocean from the water temperature increases in the temperature blobs? And what about the lowering of the pH from CO2 being absorbed into the ocean, creating carbonic acid which makes the ocean more acidic. We haven't given them a safe haven anywhere. They're in the river, they're getting hammered. They go out on the ocean, they're getting hammered, and yet we still have them, thank God. So they lived through all these terrible conditions, right? I guess that remains to be seen just how climate-resilient they really will be. Since we don't know how bad climate change is going to affect all of our different environments.

Natalie Kilmer   35:13

So I have two follow-up questions on that one, where do the salmon go when they leave the Klamath, like, where did they go in the ocean?

Keith Parker  35:21

There's a lot of understanding on that because studies that have been done. The Klamath River fish, a lot of them head south, maybe the schools end up down I think as far south as like Horse Mountain, and I forget the exact southern boundaries within the North also, you know, they go up north and they go out in the ocean, but any of the salmon in any of the river in the West Coast has like a limited range as to how far they go from their river mouth.

Natalie Kilmer   35:48

Okay, so they don't go across the world. They stay locally along the Pacific Coast.

Keith Parker  35:55

Yeah, absolutely. They basically follow their prey items. So, they follow the schools of, herring, anchovies, and krill. And they follow them around and feed on them. But yeah, they're not like tuna, like albacore here that migrate all the way across the Pacific Ocean and then back a couple of times in their life history. Yeah. No, nothing like that. 

Natalie Kilmer   36:21

Okay, thanks for clarifying that. 

Keith Parker  36:22

That's why we manage them that way. We manage what's called the Klamath management zone. It's called the KMZ. You can look it up online and google it and see what the KMZ area is. That area, we manage that for Klamath River fish.

Natalie Kilmer   36:34

I guess I heard that the Klamath salmon are some of the most climate-resilient, is that because it's a really dry area for part of the Klamath as opposed to other rivers.

Keith Parker  36:43

And maybe not just California, but even the West Coast, I think climate-resilient as far as disease resistance, for sure. And again, I'm not a disease, fish disease expert, but I can tell you as someone who has done disease assessments on the Klamath River fish, and I know how it is up on the Columbia, for instance, like Ich, it's a parasite that attacks their gills. So a lot of times, we'll go out, you know, I'll go out and drop a gill net, might catch 25 salmon, and then we take them over to the shore and we decease ‘em and we cut their gills out on the beach there, we have microscopes. And we go over every inch of their gills and we count the number of Ich spores, the parasite, which ultimately, if they get enough of them, it makes it basically so they can't breathe, I guess it's kind of like you and I having pneumonia. They lose surface area of their gills so they can’t absorb oxygen. What's crazy is, is that sometimes you'll count a fish in the Klamath River that might have hundreds of these parasites on their gills. That would totally wipe out a Columbia River fish, like that fish would be toast they'd find that washed up somewhere. I've talked to some of the biologists in the Columbia River that they’ll count, maybe dozens or under 100 of these Ich parasites on the gills and the fish will die. But down here the Klamath can have hundreds of ‘em. These fish are highly disease resistant to some of the localized disease. That's pretty awesome. And as far as climate-resilient, yeah, they have to be. Within the last five years that the water temperature on the lower Klamath River, at the gaging station there, at the Glen has hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I mean, that's lethal to salmon. And guess what? They didn't all die, some died. But the majority of the run that came in that were caught the amount that escaped, you know, made it to the spawning grounds or to the hatchery was still a relatively high number, considering drought level flows and water temperatures in the mid-70s. It's pretty amazing. And I think maybe part of it has been inherited. Because pre-European contact, pre-dam building, these fish in the fall, had to swim all the way up, and the Upper Klamath has not always been a hospitable place at all. Even before dams, it's high desert, so they've developed over time the capacity to handle that really warm water.

Natalie Kilmer   39:16

Thanks for explaining that. I guess I'm also wondering what other rivers in California have healthy salmon runs?

Keith Parker  39:23

If by healthy the way I take healthy, we mean as close to their historical genotypes and phenotypes like truly wild fish. I would say that one of the healthiest salmon runs, fall-run in California is found on the Smith River just north of the Klamath the majority of returning fish, they're really large size. They have very limited amount of genetic homogenization with hatchery fish. And I think the main reason for all this is because the Smith River has super high water quality, the river’s nearly pristine, and any of the ecosystem damage that did occur has been worked on for decades by really awesome entities like the Smith River Alliance. And remember, those Smith River fish, like I talked about earlier, right? They're genetically the same as the Lower Klamath fish like the lower 44 miles of the river from where the Trinity comes in, to where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Those are all part of those SONCC, Southern Oregon, Northern California Coastal fish. So they're genetically the same, right, but their environment has not been impacted near as much as the environment has on the Klamath River Basin. As far as spring-run salmon it's healthy runs. I would say that the Salmon River, which is a river that flows into the Klamath has one of the last viable populations of wild spring-run Chinook in the Klamath Basin. And specifically like the Upper South Fork Salmon, it remains predominantly a spring-run habitat. So while other rivers in California might have higher return numbers, to me that doesn't equal healthy salmon runs because there's been a homogenization of hatchery and wild fish genetics throughout the state, as well as spring and fall-run types being homogenized as well. And it's created actually an unnatural level of those heterozygotes I was telling you about, like for one big thing that's occurred down in the San Francisco Bay Area is for years they trucked, right, they were trucking hatchery, juvenile salmon, down to San Francisco Bay and releasing them. These are juvenile salmon from the upper Sacramento basin like the Feather River, right? And they would dump them into San Francisco Bay thinking, you know, oh, they're gonna avoid all that poor Sacramento water, they won't die and they'll go right out in the ocean. But the problem with that is, is those fish didn't get an opportunity to imprint on those natal grounds that I told you about how their natal homers right and they imprint on that, right. And so when those adult fish returned to San Francisco Bay, they scattered all over Central California, because they weren't imprinted. They didn't know we're supposed to go to the Feather River, right, or whatever river they're from. So that's not healthy. Those are the kinds of things we're talking about, you know, we don't want homogenization of hatchery and wild fish. We don't want homogenization and an unnatural level of spring and fall Chinook. We don't want to truck them down, so they don't have a chance to imprint on their natal grounds. So these other couple rivers I just talked about, we don't have those issues.

Natalie Kilmer   42:35

Okay, and then before colonization and the Gold Rush, how far south did the salmon runs exist?

Keith Parker  42:43

You know, that's a great question. I'm really not sure myself. I mean, there seems to be a difference of opinion about it. I've heard people talk to US Fish and Wildlife that they have found evidence that salmon ran as far south as like Big Sur at their southern range.

Natalie Kilmer   43:01

That would make sense with all the redwoods. 

Keith Parker  43:03

Yep, that's what I think too. But it's contentious. And I think being again, it's not my expertise, but there just might be a lack of evidence down there to recover that information. But I do know when you get to a certain point, south, the waters is just too warm. Not the river water necessary, but the ocean water.

Natalie Kilmer   43:20

What does it mean to you and your community and future generations to remove these dams?

Keith Parker  43:27

We’re fish people first we’re river people. And these dams have caused a travesty on this river and caused a huge amount of habitat destruction. For us as Native people. It's more than just biology. It's not just science, about studying all of this stuff. I push back against the false narrative that science, this fish science stuff that we're talking about right now, isn't related to social justice for Native people in the basin. Because the fish recovery of bringing these fish back, it's simultaneously a social justice issue and a scientific issue for us, they can't be separated. Because from a TEK perspective, the species loss of these fish that had been wiped out, and the potential to bring them back. The species loss not only represents a loss of biodiversity, but it's a loss of our cultural heritage. No matter what culture you're from, over time, over thousands of generations. Your body develops mechanisms, develops biota in your gut, a lot of things, to be able to harvest the food in your region and digest it in an effective manner. So over time, our people for thousands of generations have developed all of these toolsets in our body, our ceremony and our language and all of it to harvest salmon, and it's not replaceable, And so taking salmon away from us, the evidence is clear. They brought in all the food commodities and gave it to us; processed sugar, processed white flour, we don't handle those things well. Native American people don't handle sugar well, we don't handle processed flours well, we don't handle gluten well. That's why we have rampant diabetes. That's why we have rampant suicide in our culture. Because all of these things are connected to our food, these health issues. Like I said earlier, we eat the earth, we eat from the earth. And that's where a big lack of understanding that non-Native people have this idea that we can just go out and replace this food. Well, why don't you go buy meat at the store? Why don't you go buy hamburgers, instead of eating elk or deer or salmon, or sturgeon, or lamprey, or eulachon, or clams or whatever it is that we hunt and gather. And like I said, it's because this is based in such tradition that's been handed down through generations through traditional songs and stories and our belief system. And so if you go to any indigenous culture on the globe, they all have a center of their universe on their land. This river is like the center of our universe. I know elders that will tell you, the Klamath River is like the blood that flows through their veins.

Natalie Kilmer   46:26

I really appreciate what you said. I've run into a lot of folks that are like, Oh, well, I thought I was doing a good thing by eating farmed salmon. Maybe you could educate us a little bit on that, if you're open to it. 

Keith Parker  46:40

Yeah, it's definitely not. For instance, when you say farm-raised salmon, like the pen-raised salmon that you see, they do it in the oceans, but really off like Washington Coast, there's the Puget Sound has a lot of pen-raised salmon. They pose a major threat to native populations of fish. It's been documented, there's been numerous cases where fish escape from these pen enclosures, and they breed with wild fish populations. And we know from research that farmed fish, they're not as fit as wild salmon. We know that there's deleterious genetic mutations that occur in these non-wild fish, and hatchery fish too. There was an OSU study that was published, I think, in 2016. And they compared a generation of wild fish to this generation of hatchery fish. When they did genetic analysis, pretty thorough genetic analysis, they found over 700 deleterious genetic mutations that occurred in the non-wild fish. And there were like three really predominant areas that these genes expressed for, one of them was body size. So the hatchery fish had a smaller body size. The other one was disease resistance, and the other one was wound healing. Those are three really important areas if you're going to persist, right, and no matter what you are a fish or a human or anything. If you’ve got a smaller body size, and you have a lower disease resistance, and you can't heal wounds as well, and you have a genetic reason for it, that's really bad. Plus the people that have consumed them, right, fish that are raised in aquaculture environments, the density of those juvenile fish before they're released, is extremely unnatural. They're in such close proximity to each other that when one of them gets sick, it just spreads like wildfire because their density is way too great. So as you probably know, they have to put antibiotics into the water. So all those antibiotics are in the water, there's being absorbed into the fish, people eat those fish. The other thing too is those fish are fed what pellets right, they're fed basically artificial fish food. They even have dye in the food to help dye their flesh, orange, you know, so it doesn't look so bad in Costco when you see it. So it's a little bit of orange instead of completely white, as opposed to a wild fish that gets that beautiful red color from eating all that krill and shrimp out in the ocean. So these are all things that are going into our bodies with these antibiotics, maybe even some growth hormones, and then these chemicals that are in the food, and then this dye that's in the food. And then just, you know also how the fish are handled. I've been to places and taken tours of some of these farms, and they're not always handled respectfully, the fish aren't.

Natalie Kilmer   49:42

So I mean, we're all hoping these dams can come down really soon. And I know we're coming up on a comment period. What's the best way to support your work? And if you can tell us how we can learn more about it.

Keith Parker  49:54

Yeah, I mean, the best way to support I think all of our work is just to be first of all, a good steward of the land and a good steward of the river, and, practice basics at home, like conserve water and all of those types of things. And as far as being part of the cause, attend these meetings, a lot of them are online now, go to ‘em, make public comment, or make a written comment, even if it's just an email. Because remember, you know, there’s the saying; we all live downriver. There might be people in San Francisco or LA saying, “you know, what do I care, Why should I care about salmon on the Klamath River, the dams coming down?” Because like I said, these ecosystems are all connected. It's all part of the climate change puzzle. It's one piece that fits in there as far as restoring salmon because it greatly increases the ocean health. And these dams just have to come down. We know, every year, signs go up in late summer telling people don't swim in the river don't drink the water, because of the blue-green algae blooms. And we know about all the fish die-offs, and all the low water flows that we've talked about here. These dams aren't really doing anything good for us anymore when they were first put in as hydroelectric dams, sure, they produced electricity for California. But we know now of course, these dams are completely outdated, the generators need to be replaced, there's not going to be any loss of power supply to the state of California. They were built in a time when we didn't fully understand salmon migration like we do now. It would be unheard of right to build a dam nowadays with no fish ladder, and no fish bypass, but those dams were. It was deemed by Pacific Corp after a study that it's actually more cost-effective for them to remove the dams than to retrofit them with fish bypass. And we're so close. We've never been this close, FERC the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the transfer of the licensing and the decommissioning of these dams, and transferring them to Klamath River Renewal Corporation. We've got the funding in there, the contractors have already been chosen. Many of the environmental studies have been done, everything is lined up. It's just a matter of getting over this final threshold. We're talking about drawdown of the water like next year in 2023, with likely deconstruction beginning in 2024. So we're really close people, and people just need to stay tenacious and just keep up a really good fight.

Natalie Kilmer   52:33

Thanks for spelling all that out. Thank you so much for your time and your expertise Keith, I have learned so much from you and love what you do. It sounds like one of the best places to be out on the river every day.

Keith Parker  52:47

Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm humbled that you wanted to get this interview with me and I appreciate you spreading the good word about the work that we're doing. And just keep up the good fight.

Natalie Kilmer   52:58

That was Keith Parker, senior fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe. Thanks, Keith. You've been listening to West Coast Water Justice. Produced by me, Natalie Kilmer. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts. The music is from the album; Now That's What I Call Surf by Tony Bald, Adam Inguiez, and Danny Snyder