Spring Chinook Genetically Different from Fall Run—ESA Protections Sought

October, 2017


Spring Chinook in the Salmon River. Photo: Nat Pennington.

Spring Chinook in the Salmon River. Photo: Nat Pennington.


The Karuk Tribe has lived along the Klamath River since time immemorial. And as long as the Tribe has lived along the Klamath, they have relied upon the spring-run of Chinook salmon, known as “springers.” Now, because of a history of dams, logging, and mining, the springers are in danger of extinction—and with their extinction, a piece of the Karuk Tribe will be lost too. Spring Chinook are a fundamental part of Karuk culture and tradition. The return of spring Chinook initiated the beginning of the first salmon ceremony followed by a new season of harvest and processing of salmon. To stave off this threat, the Karuk Tribe has petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the Upper Klamath Basin Spring-Run Chinook as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) previously petitioned to list the springers, but their petition was denied because the National Marine Fisheries Service said that there was not enough genetic evidence that the spring-run Chinook were any different from their relatively more abundant fall-run brethren.

Recent scientific evidence shows that the two different runs are markedly different—something that the Tribe had known and argued all along. A study produced by researchers from UC Davis and published in the journal Science Advances looked at the genetics of spring and fall-run Chinook salmon in the Klamath. The study found that a genetic difference between spring and fall Chinook in a gene called Greb1L plays an important role in fat metabolism.

Spring Chinook are able to put on about 30 percent more body fat than fall Chinook. This makes sense to Karuk Councilman Josh Saxon. “We can taste the difference. They enter the river full of body fat which is why they taste so good.”

“We have known all along that fall Chinook and spring Chinook, or ishyaat, are a distinct species,” says Leaf Hillman, Director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department. “It’s about time western science catches up to traditional wisdom since that’s what is needed to make the policy changes necessary to save this part of our culture.”

Although the difference in DNA is small, the implications are large, explains Craig Tucker, Ph.D., Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe. “The research shows that the difference between spring and fall-run Chinook is a small change in a single gene. This change has occurred only once in Chinook’s evolutionary history which means that if we lose spring Chinook, we can’t expect them to re-appear for millions of years.”

Springers are in obvious trouble. Every spring, volunteers survey the entire Salmon River and its tributaries in a single day to count returning springers. There was one problem this year: there were no fish to see. “We took film crews to survey a reach that included the ‘Fish Bowl’ to document the dives and get some footage of springers,” said Amber Shelton, Conservation Advocate at EPIC. “But the springers weren’t there and the cameramen were unable to capture a single glimpse of them on film.” Historically, hundreds of thousands of spring Chinook traveled through Karuk territory along the middle Klamath.

The Karuk Tribe views ESA listing as a last resort. They are hopeful that the listing will help ensure that springers will still be around to help feed the Tribe for countless generations through additional protections afforded by the ESA and the creation of a recovery plan. Help is on the way. The Tribe is also anxiously waiting for 2020, when removal of four major dams on the Klamath River is set to begin.

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