Tribes: Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest

Yurok Tribe:
Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources

The Yurok People, often self-described as salmon people, inhabit the most downriver lands of the Klamath River in what is now the northwest corner of California. They have managed and relied upon the abundance of salmon and other aquatic species in the Klamath River since time immemorial. The Yurok people’s traditional subsistence diet and practices derived from the river and coast are a vital part of their cultural identity, creating an intricate connection between them, the species, river, land, and seasons.

The river is the lifeline of the Yurok people. It provides the majority of the Yurok’s food supply. Food resources provided from the ocean are also important to Yurok people, as well as foods offered from terrestrial areas. Together all these sources supply food for Yurok throughout the year with various fish runs returning, seaweed blooming, shellfish spawning, and fruits ripening during different times.

In September 2002, an event occurred that intensely affected the Yurok people on spiritual, emotional, and economic levels. Starting on September 19th and continuing to the end of the month, an unprecedented and massive fish kill took place in which an estimated 34,000 to possibly double that number of fish perished, mostly in the lowermost 30 miles of the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation.

The fish were mainly adult fall-run Chinook salmon returning home to spawn. However, Coho salmon, steelhead, and other fish were lost as well. Elders on the Yurok Culture Committee said, "Never in our time, have we, the elders of the Yurok Culture Committee, seen such a mass destruction of our salmon resource." Although the direct causes of the fish kill were pathogens, warmer water temperatures and low river flows due to dam regulation contributed to the disastrous event.

The fish kill served as a sign, reminder, harbinger, and call. It was a sign of how sick the river had become and the deep implications that has for the Yurok people. It was also a reminder of the important role Yurok play as stewards and as a voice for their ancestral home and the ecosystems and species within it. For many Yurok, the fish kill was a warning as well of the potentially profound effects of an increasingly evident and global force shaping the environment – climate change. Rising water temperatures, increasing drought intensities, and lower summer flows are all anticipated with climate change, conditions markedly similar to those that occurred in 2002.

Ultimately, the fish kill was a powerful call - to continue and further ongoing Yurok efforts to restore the natural environment and to take new actions to prepare for the emerging climate change challenge. The development of this Yurok Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources is one of those actions.

Yurok Adaptation Planning Process
In 2014, YTEP was awarded a three-year Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Grant by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop, among other activities, a Yurok Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources.

The planning process was primarily informed and guided by Yurok Tribal knowledge. Experiences, information, stories, and opinions from the Natural Resource and Culture Committee members, Tribal staff, and general Tribal Membership including elders and community members’ input were all sought. In addition, Federal and State agencies were invited to engage with the Yurok and participate in some of the community workshops and outreach activities.

YTEP also engaged outside collaborators to help in the development of the Plan. YTEP partnered with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) to provide input, advice, and services to YTEP project leads throughout the planning process. YTEP reached out to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to assist in the development of the Yurok Environmental Observer Network. Adaptation International assisted with the health assessment component of the Plan.

Yurok Tribe’s previous climate change work
The 2002 Klamath River Fish Kill spurred the Yurok Tribe into action to address increasing environmental changes and the Yurok Tribe Environmental Program was organized. Its mission is to protect the lands, air and water resources of the Yurok Indian Reservation for the benefit of current and future generations of Tribal Members. By 2008, the Yurok Tribal Council, Tribal Members, the Yurok Tribe’s Natural Resources,
and Culture Committees, and other tribal departments had begun to raise concerns over shifting seasons and decreased availability of many traditional foods. In response, YTEP began building staff capacity on climate change science.

In 2010, with funding from the U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, YTEP began an initial plan to identify community priorities for a Yurok response to a changing environment. Community scoping for the prioritization plan revealed that the number one priority was to protect and preserve Yurok lifeways, culture, and traditions. It was recommended that YTEP research and help protect the Yurok trust resources that may be affected by climate change impacts. In 2014, funding and support from the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative enabled YTEP to assist the Tribe in collecting and documenting Yurok Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) on ecosystem functions, community structure, species behavior, and habitat use.

Using the elders’ advice to, "follow the water", it was determined that the priority planning areas for the Yurok Tribe’s initial climate change plan should focus on the aquatic environment and resources. Areas identified that are the focus of the Adaptation Plan include: (1) aquatic habitats, (2) drinking water, (3) ney-puy (Chinook and Coho salmon), (4) chkwohl (steelhead), (5) kah-kah (green sturgeon), (6) key’-ween (Pacific lamprey), (7) seyk-soh (marine shellfish), (8) key’-ween we’ chey-gel’ (spring seaweed), and (9) Tribal Members’ health (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional). These particular species were chosen to be the focus of this Plan because they (1) are significant for Yurok food sovereignty and practices, and (2) are indicator species of ecosystem conditions throughout the year. The Yurok Aquatic Harvesting Calendar illustrates how different species occupy the river at different times of the year. All of these species have been reported to be in decline in recent years.

While the funding received for this Plan was to specifically focus on aquatic habitats and resources and Tribal health, the intention is not to separate the priority planning areas or create a hierarchy but rather to create a starting point for adaptation planning efforts.

Goal of the Plan
The goal of the Plan is to assess the vulnerabilities and resiliencies of Yurok waters, aquatic species, and people in the face of climate change and to identify strategies that will allow Yurok lifeways, culture, and health to continue and grow. The Plan encompasses both the Yurok Reservation and broader Ancestral Territory.

Climate effects and the Yurok Tribe
Yurok community members are even now bearing witness to changes that may be linked to climate change, such as rising air temperatures, warmer river waters, and increasing drought. The following is a summary of anticipated climate changes in Yurok territory that could affect Yurok water resources, traditional aquatic foods, and Tribal health:

Changes in Air Temperatures and Precipitation Regimes
  • Rising air temperatures
  • Precipitation amounts are uncertain
  • Heavier downpours

Changes in Ocean Processes
  • Warming ocean temperatures
  • Rising sea levels
  • Increasing coastal inundation and erosion
  • Ocean acidification
  • Potentially increasing coastal dead zones
  • Potentially increasing marine harmful algal blooms

Changes in Inland Hydrology
  • Shift from snow to rain, increasing rain-based winter floods
  • Earlier spring snowmelt
  • Decreasing snowpack
  • Increasing winter flows in Klamath River and tributaries
  • Decreasing late spring/summer flows in Klamath River and tributaries
  • Increasing drought intensities
  • Decreasing snow-driven spring/summer floods

Changes in Inland Water Quality
  • Warming surface water temperatures
  • Lower dissolved oxygen concentrations
  • Increases in turbidity, sedimentation
  • Expanding harmful algal blooms and possible increases in water-borne pathogens
  • Potentially higher pollutant loadings
  • Increases in saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers

Changes in Fire Regimes
  • Fire seasons are expected to become longer.
  • Wildfire frequency and extent are expected to increase.

Some examples of how these climate effects are projected to impact the aquatic habitats, drinking water, and traditional aquatic species within Yurok territory, and Tribal Member health, include:

Existing challenges (sensitivity)
There are a number of existing challenges – or sensitivities – that exacerbate the climate factors facing the Yurok Tribe and need to be taken into consideration when developing adaptive strategies to manage water and aquatic resources. Each priority planning area has specific challenges, but there are also some overarching challenges, some of which include issues related to:
Yurok strengths (adaptive capacity)
The Yurok Tribe has a great deal of adaptive capacity – or existing strengths – to enable and empower the Tribe to adapt to climate change, including but not limited to:
Key cross-cutting adaptation strategies
During the planning process, ideas from Yurok Tribal Members, Tribal staff, and a literature review resulted in over 400 adaptation actions being identified. These potential actions provide an extensive menu for Yurok Tribal departments, staff, and Members to choose pathways on how to move forward. Some actions may be relatively easy and minimal cost to implement while others may require longer-term sustained effort. The actions may become more or less applicable when considering staff and funding sources available to accomplish them. For those that seem out of reach with current resources, they could be used as touch points for focusing on building capacity needs.

In order to focus and guide next steps in implementing this climate change adaptation plan, the planning team evaluated the actions identified, considering factors such as whether the actions: address important areas of concern, are in line with the Yurok holistic world view on the inter-connectedness of all things, provide benefits across multiple habitats and species and the degree of benefit provided, and might cause harm in some way.

Taking into account these factors the team honed in on three overarching adaptation themes that together help restore balance to the ecosystem and support Yurok water and food sovereignty and Tribal health. The themes revolve around restoring and strengthening:
For each of these three broad, inter-related themes, the planning team identified different strategies for achieving these goals as well as some more specific approaches and potential next steps or actions. To read more about these strategies, the complete Yurok Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources, and other related products, go to:

For further information, contact the Yurok Tribe Environmental Program, or 707.482.1822.

This profile was developed in 2019 by Julie Maldonado, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University, with financial support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The profile is available on the Tribes & Climate Change website: The tribal climate change profiles featured on the website are intended to be a pathway to increasing knowledge among tribal and non-tribal organizations interested in learning about climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Special thanks to Suzanne Fluharty and Joe Hostler for their assistance in developing this profile.

For more information please contact:
Nikki Cooley, Co-Director
Karen Cozzetto, Co-Manager

Citation: Maldonado, J. (2019) The Yurok Tribe: Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water and Aquatic Resources, April 2019. Climate Change Program, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University. Available at: