Suckers, trash fish and the fight over food traditions in Oregon’s Klamath Basin

Suckers, trash fish and the fight over food traditions in Oregon’s Klamath Basin

Suckers, trash fish and the fight over food traditions in Oregon’s Klamath Basin

Farmers draw their water from Upper Klamath Lake, which is also home to the C'waam and Koptu fish.

Fight to save fish tells story of how European food preferences clashed with tribal systems, shaping what we choose to protect

Eliyahu Kamisher

Last modified on Thu 26 Aug 2021 13.51 EDT

Perry Chocktoot remembers the last time he ate a C’waam suckerfish. It was 1984. The fish was canned by a Klamath Tribes member and served with Tabasco. After finishing off the meat, Chocktoot was left with a tin of smoky fish oil mixed with hot sauce. “We just tipped it back and drank it,” Chocktoot recalled. “It was so good.”

Just four years later, the C’waam and its cousin the Koptu were put on the endangered species list. Since then, for more than three decades, no member of the Klamath Tribes has legally harvested the species, which are endemic to a lake and series of rivers in southern Oregon known as the Klamath Basin and once formed the backbone to the tribes’ seasonal food system.

The C’waam and Koptu are central characters in this summer’s fight for water in the Klamath Basin. They inhabit the same lake that farmers rely on to irrigate their crops. In May, amid a historic drought, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off water to approximately 1,200 farms to preserve a minimum lake depth for the suckers. In order to protect the suckerfish, the bureau is also keeping lake outflows to the Klamath River at a minimum, contributing to a die-off of juvenile coho salmon downstream in California.

Alex Gonyaw, senior fish biologist for the Klamath Tribes, examines juvenile suckerfish at the tribe's fish and wildlife facility in Chiloquin, Oregon.

But the effort to protect these suckerfish is not only about drought politics. It tells a generations-long story of how European food preferences clashed with tribal food systems and shaped what species we choose to fish for, eat and protect in the western US.

In the Klamath Basin, where periodic droughts expose fraught relations between farmers and Indigenous peoples, these fish are also proxies for racism in the area, according to tribe members. “The fish are worthless and the tribes are worthless because they care about the fish,” said Don Gentry, the Klamath Tribes chairman, paraphrasing local sentiments he has come across. “I can see that in folks’ minds.”

The C’waam and Koptu are tough species that live for decades – the oldest discovered C’waam was 57 years old. The C’waam, the bigger of the two, is also known as the Lost River suckerfish, and the Koptu as the shortnose suckerfish. Both have blunt heads and an earthy-grey coloration that fades into white bellies and large protruding lips. They are not only a historical food source but part of the creation story of the Klamath tribes.

Most of the fish spawn in the spring, migrating every year from Upper Klamath Lake into a series of tributary rivers to do so. They probably numbered in the millions in the 1800s, and their spring migration would blanket riverbeds and signal the end of winter for the Modoc, Klamath and Yahooskin people – the three Klamath Tribes. According to one account from 1883, the spawning events were so large that a Modoc fisherman could easily catch 100 fish a day by plunging a spear into the water with a sharpened hook at the end.

Today, the C’waam and Koptu population has dwindled to an estimated 25,000 and 3,400 respectively. Poor water quality and the destruction of spawning habitat by decades of cattle grazing, dam building and water diversions have brought the species years away from extinction, said Alex Gonyaw, the Klamath Tribes’ senior biologist.

During summertime in the Upper Klamath Lake, corpses of 30-year-old C’waam appear on the lake’s surface – they hail from the last successful round of reproduction in the early 1990s. Current water levels are only high enough to keep elderly fish on life support, said Gonyaw, and suckerfish larvae now never reach maturity. The lake’s current water level is “the absolute bare minimum to prevent extinction”, he said.

As C’waam and Koptu’s numbers have dwindled, so has the image of these fish among the public. The suckerfish were praised for their delicate flakey meat well into the 20th century, including by white anglers. A 1959 article in the local Herald and News newspaper, which referred to the suckerfish as mullet, noted that people traveled from across the region to buy C’waam. Many “prefer the sweet meat of the mullet to any other fish”, the article said.

Most of the suckerfish migrate every year from Upper Klamath Lake into tributary rivers to spawn.

Decades later, however, the fish have morphed from an essential food source and endemic delicacy to a species derided by non-native people as a “trash fish” only suitable for dog food or the dumpster. One 2001 article in the New York Times described the C’waam and Koptu as “all-but-inedible”.

It is unclear when exactly that transition took root. The 1959 Herald and News story, while extolling the virtues of suckerfish, also noted there were no state limits on catching them because they were considered a “trash fish”.

The C’waam and Koptu are not the only native species to be deemed garbage. The phrase “trash fish” is a common term that historically characterized a vast set of large and boney species that were often prized by Indigenous peoples but had little value to an overwhelmingly white and male sport-fishing population. Wildlife agencies officially refer to these fish as “rough fish”.

Attitudes against “rough fish” found a way into fish and wildlife management as well. By 1962, perceptions of them had grown so hostile that wildlife managers poisoned hundreds of miles of the Green River in an attempt to kill off razorback suckers and other native species to clear the way for imported rainbow trout.

Even today, implicit biases continue to shape management systems for fish and wildlife, said Andrew Rypel, a leading fish ecologist at the University of California, Davis. A recent study Rypel co-authored found that common sport fish received 11 times more research attention in many major academic journals than native rough species.

Perry Chocktoot, the suckerfish enthusiast, is the director for the Klamath Tribes’ culture and heritage department and believes the C’waam and Koptu’s reputation today stems from a basic lack of knowledge among white fishers. “They didn’t watch us. They didn’t educate themselves on how to cut these fish,” Chocktoot said. The suckerfish, unlike trout, should be filleted from the back, to avoid popping the gallbladder, which spills yellow bile and ruins the flesh, Chocktoot explained.

Each year, Chocktoot oversees a ceremony in which a suckerfish is cremated. Before placing the fish in a fire, Chocktoot delicately removes the gallbladder, called the beese in Klamath language, and places it in the roaring Sprague River. “One hundred and seventy years, and they still never came and asked – how do you make them good?” he said. “They just put a label on them and walk away from them. Discredited them.”

fish in tank

In Klamath Basin, when water runs low and suckerfish are kept alive at the expense of farmers’ livelihoods, tribe members say simmering racist attitudes bubble to the surface. During the last major water shutoff in 2001, three men drove into the tribal town of Chiloquin firing shotguns and yelling “sucker lovers”. Now the vitriol is mostly confined to social media and glares at local restaurants in the town of Klamath Falls, tribe members said.

Gonyaw, the biologist, who is not a tribal member, said he believed that rhetoric surrounding the C’waam and Koptu reflects often unspoken views about the Klamath Tribes. “They call them trash fish because they know they can’t publicly talk that way about the tribes,” he said. “These fish are surrogates for how people feel about Native Americans.”

Tracey Liskey, a fifth-generation Klamath Basin farmer, thinks little of the sucker fish – “They’re a real bony, yucky fish,” he said. “As far as the fish goes, there is no value to them whatsoever.” However, with his partner Don Barnes, Liskey is behind one of the few existing projects that could forestall the species’ extinction: excavated ponds filled with human-reared suckerfish that will be released into the lake.

Liskey knows a continually declining fish population means more water restrictions on farmers and he hopes to stop their demise. “They’re in my water and they control my water,” said Liskey. “That’s my reason for being involved in this thing.”

Some day the Klamath Tribes hope to harvest the C’waam and Koptu once again – a right enshrined in their 1864 treaty with the US government. If their decline can be reversed, rehabilitating the population will take decades. At 59 years old, Chocktoot happily shares memories of scooping C’waam with Ritz crackers, but he may never eat a C’waam again. “If their population turned around right now, 50 years from now they’d be big enough to eat,” said Chocktoot. “I don’t have 109 years.”

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