You won’t find Lost River suckerfish on any menus in the Northwest. But for years, the fish was a staple for the tribes of southern Oregon. Now the tribe’s fishery is in trouble, and the Klamath tribes are trying to figure out how to bring it back.
Mary Anne Wright remembers her great grandmother, Ruth Jackson. She used to sit out on a log in front of her house with a fishing pole. She’d catch C’waam, also known as suckerfish. And Mary Anne Wright would eat them.
“And oh, it was delicious. It was really fish — fishy, you know? I mean, the smell was strong. But it was good tasting,” Wright says.
Back then, the fish were so thick in the river, Wright says, all you could see was their dark backs.
Now Wright is an elder in the Klamath tribes. The suckerfish are few and far between. But the tribe still gathers by the river in the spring to hold a first fish ceremony.
Jeff Mitchell is a member of the tribal council. He says the C’waam arrived each year when the tribes were hungry after a long winter.
“You know, we always knew that if we could just hang on to this early spring, these fish would start coming up the river, and we’d have life for another year,” Mitchell says.
Tribal members gather around a fire as the ceremony begins. The C’waam lurk in a big, gray bucket. They look a bit like miniature sharks with a hose for a mouth.
The youngest members of the tribes crowd the bucket. These kids have never tasted C’waam. Much of the fish’s marshy spawning habitat has been dammed or converted into farmland. In 1987, suckerfish were listed as endangered.
Mitchell says the tribes had to stop fishing.
“As fish people, when you take fish away, it’s like taking a little bit of your soul — and you lose that,” Mitchell says.
The C’waam in this ceremony were raised in the tribe’s hatchery center. The fish are prayed over. A male and female suckerfish are released into the river. The tribe hopes the pair will reproduce.
“There was a time when we didn’t protect things as well as we should have. I want to feed my grandchildren a piece of C’waam,” Mitchell says.
The Klamath tribes are participating in a restoration agreement to help recover these fish and others from the Klamath Basin.
But the agreement is controversial: it would remove four dams from the Klamath River. And Congress has yet to fund or authorize it.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated.]
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