Yurok Tribe seeks federal funds to recover from fisheries disaster

Citizens of the Yurok Tribe participate in the 16th Annual Klamath River Clean Up on April 15, 2017. Photo: Yurok Tribe

The Yurok Tribe is still waiting on the federal government to provide much-needed disaster recovery funds.

In January, the Obama administration declared a disaster for the tribe's salmon fishery on the Klamath River in California. The designation came after two years of low runs of salmon, an important component of the Yurok diet.

“This is a nightmare. I have never in my life dreamed that it could get this bad,” Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. said in March after runs for 2017 were projected to be the worst in history. “This is devastating to our people, not only physically but emotionally. It’s saddening and hard to believe.”

Despite the emergency, Congress has yet to allocate funds for the tribe and for the eight other fisheries -- including four tribal ones in Washington -- that are covered by the disaster declaration. That has some lawmakers worried about the livelihoods of fishermen and their families.

“Hardworking fishermen and coastal economies along the North Coast are experiencing real economic hardship from several disastrous fishing seasons in a row, causing these fishermen to miss boat payments or even decide to leave their fishing business altogether,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) said in a press release on Wednesday. “They have played by the rules, and the state and federal governments have agreed that they’re eligible for financial relief, but now that the money is owed Congress has fallen down on the job.”

To address the crisis, Huffman introduced H.R.2330, the Yurok Tribe Klamath River Chinook Salmon Emergency Disaster Assistance Act, on Wednesday. The bill provides $14.45 million in assistance for Yurok fishing communities and, in an effort to prevent future disasters, includes $6 million for salmon restoration and monitoring activities.

“We have a responsibility to these fishing communities to keep up the fight until Congress delivers the money,” Huffman said.

In 2016, the Yurok Tribe halted its commercial salmon season in response to low runs. The situation was so bad that there wasn't enough fish to feed everyone at the annual Klamath Salmon Festival on the reservation. Although the festival went on as planned, the traditional salmon lunch was canceled.

This year is shaping up to be even worse O'Rourke expects the tribe's salmon allocation to be about 650 fish, or one fish for every 10 of its citizens.

“We are in crisis mode. The Klamath is our grocery store, our church and our main highway. It’s our lifeline,” O'Rourke said.

In recognition of the low numbers, Huffman, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), who is co-sponsoring the Yurok assistance bill, and other lawmakers from California are asking Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to seek another disaster declaration for 2017.

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