Native fish: Indigenous communities lead fight to save Sacramento’s salmon

15 December 2020

Niria Alicia Garcia is standing on the banks of California’s Sacramento River, holding her phone. It’s mid-summer and the wide, steady waterway is flanked by willow trees, their branches trailing to the ground.

Garcia, who is livestreaming, pans her phone, showing a group of indigenous women in face masks praying beside the river, which glints in the sun. Garcia and the women are participating in the 2020 Run4Salmon, an event to raise awareness about the plight of the Chinook salmon, which have reached critically low numbers.  

As the women pray, Garcia, 28, looks directly into the lens on her phone and speaks.

“The reason we are fighting to bring the Chinook salmon back is that they are a keystone species here,” she says. “They are also sacred to the Winnemem Wintu people and many other indigenous communities from California to Canada to Alaska.”

In December 2020, Garcia, a graduate in environmental studies and a Xicana human rights advocate, was named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She is one of seven prize winners from around the world who will be given funding and mentorship to support their environmental initiatives.

The annual Run4Salmon, a two-week, 480-kilometre (300-mile) trek that follows the historical journey of salmon from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the McCloud River. Garcia helps organise the event working with Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and a collective of indigenous women and activists. They aim to inspire local communities and policy makers to restore and protect endangered Chinook and other wildlife along the waterways, including bears, hawks and fish like the endangered delta smelt.

“We do a lot of fighting, advocating and pushing back on bad policies. We are fighting for species that really get overlooked,” explains Garcia.”

“Niria Garcia and Run4Salmon reflect how everyone has a role to play in addressing the world’s environmental problems,” said Tim Christophersen, an ecosystems expert at UNEP. “This is especially true as 2021 kicks off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Run4Salmon reinforces how we need everyone on board to change minds, change behaviour and bring our societies and economies into harmony with nature.”

Canaries in the coalmine of climate change

The Chinook salmon, or king salmon, is the largest Pacific salmon species. They migrate from the freshwater rivers above the Sacramento Delta to the coastal sea and back up to the freshwater rivers to spawn. “Salmon” comes from the Latin salir, “to leap”, describing how these fish ascend rapids to get to their spawning grounds upstream.

Chinook salmon populations have been in decline for the past 150 years, impacted initially by habitat loss from gold mining and over-fishing, and more recently from agriculture dumping and fracking pollution. Dams are another significant problem for the migratory fish; the Shasta Dam, the eighth tallest in the United States of America, has cleaved the salmon from their spawning grounds further upstream.

The National Wildlife Federation also call the salmon the “canaries in the coalmine” of climate change.

“We’re experiencing climate change on all levels,” says Garcia. “The biggest challenge is seeing the government carrying on business as usual, acting like the world is not burning and the rivers are not drying up.” 

But she believes solutions do exist. “It’s traditional ecological knowledge that is going to help us restore and create the resilient communities and landscapes that we need to be able to endure the changes that are here and that are going to continue to come.”

Niria Alicia Garcia is a 2020 Young Champion of the Earth winner
Niria Alicia Garcia coordinates the annual Run 4 Salmon event alongside a community of indigenous activists. Photo: UNEP

Collective, creative action

The Run4Salmon initiative started in 2016. Nicknamed “the Indigenous Ironman”, it encourages communities to join the procession by walking, running, cycling, paddling and horseback riding. The event is usually interspersed with film screenings, school and university visits, direct action trainings, invasive species lifting and protests outside state buildings.

This year, the public event was cancelled due to the pandemic and replaced by a livestream.

That work has become more urgent. Two new engineering projects are tabled for the river that “would be lethal” for biodiversity, says Garcia. One is a plan to raise the level of the Shasta Dam. The other is a scheme to pipe freshwater from north of the Sacramento estuary to cities and farms in southern California.

The Run4Salmon collective is responding to these challenges by making a virtual reality film highlighting the salmon’s journey and the need to restore the biodiversity of the region. It will be shared with communities, government officials and decision makers who have never been to the river.

“Virtual reality is powerful because it can help people see, experience and fall in love with what we are trying to protect,” says Garcia.

The advocates are also looking to an unlikely place to replenish salmon stocks – New Zealand. When the Shasta Dam was constructed in 1945 a hatchery on the Sacramento river sent salmon eggs around the world. Today, Chinook salmon survive in the care of the Ngai Tahu Maori people of New Zealand’s South Island.

“There is a feasible plan on how to bring these salmon back, but there are big challenges,” says Garcia, referring to red tape and financial costs.

When asked why so many young people are working on environmental issues right now Garcia replies, “We have no other choice. We don’t have that privilege.”

She encourages other young people who have environmental ideas for their community: “You were born for these times. Your existence is not a coincidence, so go for it!”

Article retrieved from the Young Champions of the Earth

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth honour individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have had a transformative impact on the environment.

The Young Champions of the Earth prize is the United Nations Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Niria Alicia Garcia is one of seven winners announced in December 2020, on the cusp of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

By showcasing news of the significant work being done on the environmental frontlines these awards aim to inspire and motivate more people to act for nature. Both awards are part of UNEP’s #ForNature campaign to rally momentum for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming in May 2021, and catalyze climate action all the way to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.  

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