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California's salmon strategy includes tribal quest led by the Winnemem Wintu

Salmon strategy involves repatriating California fish stocks from New Zealand
Salmon strategy involves repatriating California fish stocks from New Zealand 03:38

More than 100 years ago, wild winter-run Chinook salmon from the icy cold McCloud River ended up in the glacially cold mountain waters of New Zealand, where they continue to thrive today.  

The quest to bring these ancestral fish back home continues, thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Since 2016, an annual pilgrimage takes place that is led by the Winnemem Wintu tribe and its chief and spiritual leader Caleen Sisk.

The 300-mile journey traces the ancestral path of the winter-run Chinook salmon from the McCloud River to the Pacific Ocean. The tribe has never wavered from a core belief.

"You know in our traditions, whatever happens to the salmon, happens to the people," said Chief Sisk.

Salmon populations are a fraction of what they once were, and climate change plays a role.

"In the last decade, they've been hit by the one-two punch of climate change: disruptive heat waves [and] dryness throught extreme drought," explained Chuck Bonham.

Bonham heads up the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He told CBS News Bay Area that the summer of 2021 was a grim one for these fish.

"We were in the midst of the peak of our most recent severe drought and these fish are now trapped on the valley floor. And the valley floors are much hotter. Water that's too hot is lethal for salmon," noted Bonham.

CDFW is looking to boost the salmon population and just announced a new series of grants. The agency has awarded $50 million to 15 projects. One of those projects involves the Winnemen Wintu Tribe and these salmon.

The tribe is set to receive $3.3 million.

"It's the right thing to do and they may help us to help save salmon in California," explained Bonham.

"So they're in a dire position now and may go extinct if the project that we're involved in is not successful," added Sisk.

Sisk recounted how the problem with the winter-run Chinook first began with the building of the Shasta Dam. While the dam provided flood control, hydroelectric power, and water supplies, it also caused issues for the fish and the tribe.

"It is a weapon of mass destruction to me," Sisk explained.

Built during WWII, Shasta dam flooded the Winnemem tribe off their ancestral land. It also blocked the Chinook from returning to the icy cold McCloud River to spawn and reproduce in the wild.

In 1994, these fish were federally listed as endangered. The tribe held ceremonial dances at Shasta Dam to protest the state of the salmon. The event was widely covered by the press.

Soon afterwards, Chief Sisk got an email. It read in part: "Do you want your salmon back? We have them," said Sisk.

The email was from the then head of the Māori people of New Zealand.

He explained to Sisk why he was writing. He told her that in the 19th century, millions of salmon eggs from the McCloud river were exported to 30 states and 14 different countries including New Zealand to create new salmon runs.

The only one that thrived is the one in New Zealand. The Māori invited the Winnemem Wintu to see the river and the salmon. When Sisk and the tribal members saw the salmon, they became determined to bring some back home to the McCloud.

"We want to welcome them," said Chief Sisk.

"What better way to try to heal past injuries and show the world that it's possible to do things together and to do it better," added Bonham.

In an historic agreement, signed in 2023, the tribe is now working with CDFW and NOAA fisheries to support a joint effort to return the salmon to the McCloud and their spawning areas.  

The tribe signed a co-management agreement with CDFW and a co-stewardship agreements with NOAA. Sisk believes the wild salmon eggs will fare better than those hatched near the dam.  

"If the salmon survive, the people will survive. If we can then get a volitional passage from the Sacramento River, past the dam so the fish can swim in and out on their own, then we have wild fish again," explained Sisk.

The tribe is exploring how to move the descendent fish eggs back to the California, and to reduce the risk of any unintended pathogens arriving with them. The hope is to get them home as soon as possible. New Zealand is also experiencing warmer temperatures, as well as sea level rise.

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