Skip to main content

Killing the Klamath (Locally Produced)

Killing the KlamathKilling the Klamath

See the story of the Klamath Tribes’ fight to save the sacred C’waam and Koptu fish.

Documentary tells the story of the Klamath Tribes’ fight to save the sacred C’waam and Koptu fish and a dying lake. 

Known for its scenic beauty and spectacular wildlife, the Klamath Basin also sees its share of controversy as communities grapple with how to meet the water needs of people, farms, and fish.

Told by tribal leaders and scientists, Killing the Klamath explores the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to toxic algae blooms in Upper Klamath Lake that are driving C’waam and Koptu fish to extinction.

Once the most important food fish in Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake region, C’waam and Koptu were caught by the thousands and remain a centerpiece of the Tribes’ way of life and annual Return of the C’waam ceremony. The Tribes’ creation story tells us “If the C’waam go away, the people go away.” 

Today, the Tribes are desperately working to save the C’waam through conservation, better management of scarce water and reducing polluted run-off from agriculture and cattle operations.

Found only in the Upper Klamath River Basin, the clock is ticking for these endangered fish as annual toxic algae blooms kill most of the young fish that are the future of the species. Adult fish can live for 30 years or more, but most are reaching the end of their natural lifespans. Scientists with the Tribe fear they could be extinct in less than ten years. 

The collapse of C’waam and Koptu fisheries has marched virtually in lock step with the declining health of Upper Klamath Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Rocky Mountains. The lake was once a major destination for boating, birding, wildlife watching, paddling, and fishing. Today people avoid the lake from late Spring into Fall in most years due to chronically low lake levels and severe algae blooms that not only kill fish, but prompt Oregon officials to post regular health advisories warning against contact with toxins in the water.

“My dad used to train swimming across there. Those are things now you wouldn’t even let your animal touch it,” said Klamath Tribes Councilman Clay Dumont.

In a last-ditch effort to save the fish from extinction, the Klamath Tribes every Spring gather newborn fish and rear them for several years before returning them to the wild. But the young fish released into the lake will only survive to become adults, reproduce, and rebuild fish populations if the lake is healthy enough to support them. The Tribes’ are hopeful their supplementation program can keep the fish on life support while they work to restore the health of the lake and surrounding ecosystems.

Upper Klamath Lake and its iconic resident fish suffer from two major, interrelated problems – water quality and water quantity. Polluted run-off from agriculture and cattle operations pour nutrients into the lake that feed the toxic algae blooms. By the end of summer about 75% of the lake is gone, siphoned away for irrigation, crowding the fish into less habitat that turns deadly as the algae dies off, decays and sucks away life-giving oxygen from the lake.

The problem is complex and won’t be fixed overnight, but there are some commonsense steps that can be taken right away. For starters, the State of Oregon could begin enforcing federal clean water protections already in place but largely ignored in the Upper Klamath Basin. Placing fencing along riverbanks offers a cost-effective way to keep cattle out of rivers and streams that are the source of water for the lake.

Improving water quality and leaving more water in Upper Klamath Lake would benefit local communities and all the species that live in the Basin, including fish downstream, where dam removal has been proposed to save Klamath River salmon.

Upper Klamath Wildlife Refuge on the lake is part of a complex of six wildlife refuges that make the Klamath Basin a global hot spot for birds. The Basinhosts the largest wintering concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states and upwards of 80% of the migrating waterfowl that use the Pacific Flyway, numbering over a million birds at times.

Ultimately, the Klamath Tribes want to heal the lands and waters of their ancestral home and restore sustainable C’waam and Koptu fisheries as a cornerstone of their plan for economic self-sufficiency.