Saving Salmon in California: A Native Perspective

A note from NWF’s California Director Beth Pratt: California Conservation Corp crew members and their leader John Griffith have embraced NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program and certified their Ukiah campus, with plans of doing more sites across California. I recently visited with the crew and became so impressed with their dedication to helping wildlife that I offered a guest spot on the Wildlife Promise blog if they would write about their experiences. The first story, about the quest for the Pacific giant salamander, will have you wanting to encounter one of these slimy but cool creatures. The second story in the series, written by Nick Aquirre, tells the fascinating story of a continuing battle between predator and prey.  In the third story in the series, Melina Di Stefano introduces you, with a great video, to the red-legged frog and how she works to save them. In this new blog, Kody Kibby talks about his lifelong relationship with salmon–and how he works to restore their habitat.

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Kody Kibby working to restore salmon habitat with the California Conservation Corps (photo John Griffith/CCC)

The Oncorhynchus kisutch has more than one name. Fishermen call them “silvers.” Biologists call them “coho salmon.” My people, the Yurok, call them by their much older name: “ne-puey.” To the Yuroks, ne-puey are our brothers, sisters, and a gift. We honor them through gatherings, ceremonies, and prayer. We created our homes, dances, and culture around ne-puey: we’ve had a relationship with them that has lasted thousands of years. Today, this family member is in danger. The Yurok Tribe, along with many state and federal agencies, and non-profit organizations, are working toward increasing the salmon population and fixing the damage that has been done to their habitat during California’s history.

I am doing my part for salmon in the California Conservation Corps (CCC)—a state youth workforce development program. I joined the CCC after I graduated from high school. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue in life, but I knew that I loved the outdoors and my culture. The CCC has helped me combine the two. Being a corps member has been difficult at times. The CCC’s motto is: Hard Work, Low Pay, and Miserable Conditions. I learned that they weren’t kidding about that. In spite of the challenges, I worked hard every day. I grew. Eventually, I was promoted to crew leader and selected for the fire crew. Joining the program was a good decision.

I’ve participated in many types of ecological restoration projects during my time in the CCC, but this summer (my last summer in the program) I fought fires and worked on salmon habitat restoration projects.

Watch a video of Kody talking about his restoration work:

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When the CCC does salmon habitat restoration projects, we try to make the results of our efforts mimic natural processes. According to scientists, salmon evolved with a lot of wood in the streams. This wood came from the old growth forests that once lined the streams and rivers of California. Whether it was the huge branches of giant redwoods that dropped after a major storm, or fallen doug fir trees, the wood would cause the water of winter high flows to scour pools, sort gravel ideal for spawning, and provide much needed cover for salmon from predators. Salmon evolved with the effects of wood in their freshwater habitat. After a century of bad logging practices, which regularly involved clear cutting all the way to the water’s edge, wood was no longer a consistent source to aid the salmon in completing their lifecycle.

The CCC partners with non-profits like the Eel River Watershed Improvement group (ERWIG), private companies like Mendocino Redwood Company, and other state agencies like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to bring wood back into streams of the Eel River Watershed. Our logs are much smaller, so they have to be secured to bankside trees and bedrock to prevent them from being swept away during winter storms. Still, the smaller logs have a big impact in favor of fish. They provide some of the habitat requirements that salmon will need to help them during the part of their life spent in freshwater.

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Chinook salmon in lower Tuolumne River (Photo Dan Cox/USFWS)

Restoration projects that improve habitat for salmon are being done in many different watersheds. But these efforts cannot resolve everything that negatively impact salmon, nor will these efforts alone create the healthy habitat we and ne-puey need. There are other barriers we must also face and overcome. For some people, building log structures along riverbanks is all it takes to make habitat “healthy.” To my tribe, and many other tribes along the coast and rivers of California, there is much more to do to achieve natural balance for salmon. Californians need to also change the way they think about salmon, or at least, try to understand how other people think about them. To my people losing salmon is losing a piece of tradition, culture, and heritage. When salmon disappear, we lose a piece of ourselves. Again… salmon/ne-puey are part of our family.

We can prevent the loss of more salmon from happening with continuing restoration efforts, open dialogue and inclusiveness among all stake holders, active cooperation by more community members and organizations, and more understanding of what salmon need. The Western World way of thinking has created obstacles for how we should see nature and each other. Not all people think of salmon as just a commodity. Overcoming these obstacles of conflicting worldviews and understanding each other’s differences are the key to success for salmon restoration, and achieving balance between two cultures that have been clashing since the beginning of America. We must all come together and work with each other (native and non-native people) to save ne-puey/salmon.

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Coho salmon (Courtesy USFWS)

Thank you to the California Conservation Corps, the Eel River Watershed Improvement Group (ERWIG), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Mendocino Redwood Company for providing opportunities for California’s youth to help restore salmon in the Eel River Watershed.

For more California wildlife photos and stories, follow NWF California on Facebook.

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