Tribe travels across Pacific to recover lost salmon species

10:01 AM, Aug 31, 2011   |    comments
  • With daughter Marine Sisk-Franco peering over her shoulder, Caleen Sisk-Franco, the tribe's spiritual leader and traditional chief, looks for her first glimpse of her tribe's salmon at a spawning ground near the Rakaia River in New Zealand. Courtesy of Marc Dadigan/California Watch
  • A Bay Area group of Aztec dancers performs at the Coonrod ceremony, an annual ritual that maintains the Winnemem Wintu tribe’s spiritual connection to the Chinook salmon that once swam in the McCloud River. Courtesy of Marc Dadigan/California Watch
  • Members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe release salmon fry into a stream that leads to the Rakaia River in New Zealand during a visit in March 2010. Courtesy of Marc Dadigan/California Watch
  • During the spiritual salmon trek, the Winnemem and supporters swim beneath the cascade of the McCloud River's 50-foot Middle Falls. Courtesy of Marc Dadigan/California Watch
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By: Marc Dadigan

SHASTA, Ca. -- For nearly 70 years, the McCloud River in Northern California has been bereft of the Chinook salmon spawning runs for which it was once known. But for a few hours this summer, the Winnemem Wintu tribe revived the river's memory of the lost, sacred fish.

"We Winnemem are a salmon people, but because of the Shasta Dam, the salmon can't swim this river anymore," tribal member Rick Wilson told about 100 Winnemem and supporters at the river's falls. "So we have to do it for them."

Following the path the fish once took up the McCloud's glacial waters, the ersatz salmon plunged from the rounded cliffs of the river's Lower Falls, swam under the feathery cascade of the 50-foot Middle Falls, then at the Upper Falls dove into a chilly former spawning pool and fetched a stone from the bottom, just as salmon upturn the gravel to lay their roe.

The spiritual rite, part of the annual Coonrod ceremony, is meant to maintain the Winnemem's connection to their lost salmon. But the traditional, federally unrecognized tribe of 123 plans to one day swim the falls with its salmon by importing them back to the McCloud from an unlikely way station - New Zealand.

"When our people first came into the world, it was salmon who gave us their voice, and we promised to always speak for them in return," said spiritual leader and traditional chief Caleen Sisk-Franco. "But now, we might have to learn to speak with a Kiwi accent."

During World War II, the 602-foot-high Shasta Dam flooded the lower 26 miles of the McCloud and blocked the Chinook salmon from migrating to their birth waters, leaving them to either assimilate with the Sacramento River salmon or die by bashing their heads against the concrete behemoth.

But the Winnemem's salmon, by a twist of fate, have been thriving across the hemisphere after a federal hatchery on the McCloud sent eggs to New Zealand during the early 20th century, according to Fish and Game New Zealand officials.

While somewhat smaller than their McCloud ancestors, the salmon in the Rakaia River have remained genetically pristine and disease-free, said Dirk Barr, manager of Fish and Game New Zealand's salmon hatchery on the Rakaia River.

"These are the fish that would have grown up to be McCloud River salmon," Sisk-Franco said.

When the hatchery was built during the 1870s, the Winnemem eventually came to an uneasy truce with the fish culturists while also making a spiritual covenant with their salmon: The hatchery might take their roe and milt, but the salmon always would be able to come home to the McCloud.

The dam, of course, broke this covenant, and atonement was the tribe's mission last spring when nearly 30 members maxed out credit cards and raised enough funds to travel to New Zealand to hold their first salmon ceremony in nearly a century.

In the Canterbury province, the Winnemem were hosted by local Maori tribes; visited a hatchery, where they released wiggly salmon fry by hand; and danced and sang for four days on the banks of the Rakaia, asking the salmon for forgiveness.

"During the ceremony, we saw the salmon jumping out of the water for us. I knew they were happy to see us, and they were ready to come home," Sisk-Franco said.

With the spiritual connection restored to the salmon, the tribe is working with federal agencies to implement its innovative plan to return the salmon.

Already having secured the approval of Fish and Game New Zealand and Maori tribes, the Winnemem would import salmon eggs from the Rakaia and rear them in their own hatchery on the upper McCloud, where the fish could acclimate to the river's waters.

To get migrating salmon around the dam, the tribe has proposed flushing McCloud water down two natural waterways, Cow and Dry creeks, which would provide a 20-mile detour from the Sacramento River, below the dam, to the southwest corner of Shasta Lake. A manmade channel, about a quarter-mile, would have to be tunneled to connect Dry Creek to the reservoir, Sisk-Franco said.

From there, the salmon would have to travel through the reservoir past Pit River and Squaw Creek before reaching the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake, where the reservoir and river intermingle.

Federal fish biologists say young salmon traveling downstream probably will need help to navigate the reservoir. But spawning salmon, if they've been imprinted as fry with McCloud water, should find their way once they get a whiff of their birth waters, Sisk-Franco said.

Central Valley wild salmon, especially winter Chinook, are on a trajectory toward extinction, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said, and federal fish biologists already have targeted the cold, clean McCloud River as a place salmon must be reintroduced if they're to survive. The Winnemem's plan potentially could be a cost-effective alternative to the agency's likely method: trapping salmon below and above the dam and hauling them around on trucks or barges.

"If society is serious about having wild salmon in California, we need to invest in getting them above the impoundment dams like Shasta and back to their spawning grounds in the mountains," said Brian Ellrott, NOAA's Central Valley recovery coordinator.

For the Winnemem, preserving the Central Valley salmon, of which only three of 18 historical wild spring runs remain, means nothing less than preserving their culture.

"Maybe we should be put on an endangered species list, too, because we're still recovering from what the dam did to us," Sisk-Franco said. "In order for us to recover, we need to have salmon in the McCloud. We need that relationship back again."

The Winnemem's territory spans the 77 miles of the McCloud watershed, where the tribe had existed as hunter-gatherers and salmon fishermen for thousands of years. The tribe control a 42-acre ranch, Tuiimyali, a traditional village site dappled with copses of oaks and manzanita that lies northwest of Redding at the foot of Bear Mountain.

If the tribe's salmon plan becomes a reality, the salmon would swim up Dry Creek, which runs through the village, on their way around the dam.

It's a plan that Ellrott and colleague Gary Sprague, a NOAA fish biologist, said they were open to pursuing when they met informally this month at the Coonrod ceremony with the Winnemem, the tribe's Maori supporters and Barr, the New Zealand hatchery manager.

"We have a common goal: to get wild salmon in the McCloud River," Ellrott said. "We might not see eye to eye on all of it, but I think we can get to a place where we're both happy."

California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more at

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