Op-ed: Saving This Fish Means Saving Our Tribe's Future | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Saving This Fish Means Saving Our Tribe’s Future

A group of Northern California Tribes are working hard to save the Clear Lake hitch, a small fish that has played a large role in our culture. But we can’t do it alone.

Ron Montez Sr. stands at an impassible culvert on Adobe Creek, singing to hitch pooling in the waters below. (Photo credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer)

Ron Montez Sr. stands at an impassible culvert on Adobe Creek, singing to hitch pooling in the waters below. (Photo credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer)

This February, after long-anticipated rains deluged California, causing creek beds to overflow and turning fields into marshland, the spawning runs of a sacred, highly endangered fish—the Clear Lake Hitch—reappeared in their historic waterways.

We rejoiced, we wept, and we sang to them. Then we rolled up our sleeves and pantlegs and rescued over 5,000 hitch from puddles in vineyards and isolated pools in the creeks as the water levels dropped lower and lower. Tribal members participating in the rescues held hitch gently in their hands, marveling over their size and vigor. Some of the beefier guys gave them quick, surreptitious kisses before releasing back into safer waters.

“We see a direct connection between the loss of ancestral lands and waters, native fish and traditional lifeways, and the despair and poor health outcomes affecting Tribal people.”

Hitch are deeply embedded in our Tribal culture. Known as chi (pronounced “chai”) in Bahtssal (Eastern Pomo), healthy hitch populations sustained Pomo, Lake Miwok, Wappo, and Pit River Tribal families for thousands of years. Communal fishing parties—where children and young adults caught hitch with their shirts or in buckets, and mothers and aunties gutted, scaled, and set the fish on lines to dry for year-round eating—supplemented diets at times when Tribal members faced limited job opportunities. Catching, processing, and eating hitch reinforced social relationships across families, Tribes, and generations. Yet today’s Gen Zers have never tasted hitch, and millennials have only fleeting memories.

The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, where Ron is a Tribal elder and the Tribal historic preservation officer, is one of seven local Tribes. Since the pandemic began, the Tribe has lost 5 percent of its population. (The 2021 death rate in California was 0.76 percent.) Half of the Tribe’s elders, and over two dozen adults in their 20s to 50s, have died of unnatural causes: COVID, cancer, heatstroke, drug addiction, murder, suicide.

Lack of access to ancestral foods has implications for Tribal spiritual, mental, and physical health. We see a direct connection between the loss of ancestral lands and waters, native fish and traditional lifeways, and the despair and poor health outcomes affecting Tribal people.

We’re fighting to bring back the hitch to our waters in hopes of reversing these lethal trends. For far too long, discriminatory policies against Tribal lifeways and beliefs, and the ancestral homelands and native wildlife whom we consider extended family members, have resulted in destructive legacies that harm all of us. If the hitch don’t have what they need to survive, neither do we.

A rescued hitch. (Photo credit: Luis Santana)

A rescued hitch. (Photo credit: Luis Santana)

Culturally Significant Fish

California’s most endangered fish: the Delta smelt, the Clear Lake hitch, and all four species of salmon have all played vital, irreplaceable roles in the cultures of hundreds of California Tribes and Tribal communities. Coastal Tribes—known as Salmon Nations—have an extensive history of salmon rituals, ceremonies, and complex intertribal understandings that ensured sustainable harvests for millennia. Tolowa Dee-ni elders recall catching salmon so hefty it took two men to haul them up the river banks. Historical accounts repeatedly say that wherever fish like hitch and salmon spawned, they filled waterways to the point that “you could cross the riverbeds walking on their backs.”

As of today, Delta smelt have been absent from scientists’ counts for seven years. Despite the abundance of adult hitch this winter, no juvenile hitch has been found in biological surveys for six years—a death knell for a species whose adult lifecycle ends after seven years. And the California salmon fishing season has been shut down, again. Tribes see policies that promote dams over free-flowing rivers, and commercial agriculture over fish, as environmental racism.

Tribes consider their existence intertwined with species that are culturally significant: What impacts those species, impacts the Tribes. Pomo creation stories tell how Clear Lake originated from a hole poked into Coyote’s side following a devastating drought, and the wild creatures he ate before filling his belly with water “turned themselves into fish.” Fishnets woven from milkweed and traditional willow fish traps similar to the ones from the 1800s collected at the Smithsonian Museum are still crafted and used today.

The hitch migrate from Clear Lake, the largest lake in California, into its tributaries to spawn before retuning. The fish were so numerous pre-contact that photos from the 19th century show them in extravagant piles, flooding the creeks, and spilling over the banks. Cole Creek, one of the hitch-bearing tributaries passing through the territories of the Xabenapo people (Ron’s ancestors), was known as che-be-domeh (hitch creek).

1873 photo of “squaw” fish (hitch) overflowing the banks of Kelsey Creek.

1873 photo of “squaw” fish (hitch) overflowing the banks of Kelsey Creek.

Two centuries later, 2019 surveys in Cole Creek counted no fish. Toxic and increasingly warm water, frequent harmful algal blooms, and predation by dozens of invasive species (bass, carp, and catfish) introduced by California Fish and Game—the very agency now fighting alongside the Tribes for the hitch’s survival—has made the hitch so rare that it is now more commonly found as plastic replica, the “All-American Trash Fish” in Lake County bait-and-tackle shops than in the water.

The Fight

Seven Lake County Pomo Tribes have been fighting for the hitch’s survival for over a generation, but their efforts gained urgency in the last decade. Since 2011, Lake County Pomo have boarded Tribal vans and driven hundreds of miles to testify at state agency meetings on behalf of the fish. Tribal testimony, alongside lawsuits from the Center for Biological Diversity, resulted in breakthroughs in 2014, when the the State of California listed the hitch as threatened and again in 2022, when the California Fish and Game Commission convened a multi-agency emergency summit.

Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency responsible for enacting the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the policy ensuring the furthest-reaching protections for the hitch, refused to grant the hitch federal listing status, saying there was “insufficient data.”

An endangered listing would provide a legal basis for protecting critical hitch habitat—Clear Lake and its tributaries—and make it illegal to harm the hitch by diverting or withdrawing excess water from those tributaries. For example, an ESA listing would prevent creekside vineyards from indiscriminately using water for frost protection during hitch runs—a current practice that the agricultural community is fiercely defending.

Grape growers in the region have said they have no other way to save their crops, and adamantly deny that their water use has any significant bearing on the dried-up creek beds, desiccated egg masses, or stranded and dead fish documented during hitch migrations.

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Hitch stranding in dry creek bed. (Photo credit: Ben Ewing)

Hitch stranding in dry creek bed. (Photo credit: Ben Ewing)

When we learned that USFWS had refused to grant endangered status to a fish teetering on the brink of extinction we were bewildered, then angry. When a federal agency discounts Tribal expertise and traditional ecological knowledge, it is as if historical treaties are being broken all over again. The right to fish and subsist on native fish who live in our ancestral waters is meaningless if there’s not enough water in the first place.

Tragically, scenarios like this are playing out in Tribal communities across the country. In Washington state, for example, after generations of bitter struggles, over two dozen Tribes now have treaty-reserved fishing rights, yet decimated fish populations have led to successive years of disaster relief instead of fish. Although Alaskan Tribes have subsistence fishing rights via the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)—an act initially aimed at protecting Alaska Native rights—the act no longer offers that protection after being challenged in court.

In Northern California, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes have a federally-reserved right to harvest half of the harvestable Klamath River fish, but with Chinook salmon population declines and die-offs, the Tribes have shut down their fisheries for five years in a row.

Lake County Pomo, living in one of California’s most economically disadvantaged counties, have no right to their sacred fish. This spring, when the chi returned to spawn, Tribal members daring to take less than a bucketful of fish were chased down by law enforcement and cited for illegal take of a threatened species.

If Tribal members elect to eat invasive lake fish instead, they endanger their health and that of their children. Clear Lake has the distinction of being one of the world’s most mercury contaminated lakes, the legacy of the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine, an EPA Superfund site adjacent to the Elem Indian Colony.

Due to the mercury bioaccumulating in Clear Lake fish (small amounts of mercury in prey fish become large amounts of mercury in predator fish), public health advisories recommend eating no more than three bass or catfish a week. The elderly, the very young, and pregnant women are advised to avoid Clear Lake fish altogether.

Hitch pooling in Adobe Creek. (Photo credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer)

Hitch pooling in Adobe Creek. (Photo credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer)

An Uncertain Future

We are still in crisis, despite this winter’s heavy precipitation and abundant hitch runs. With the rains gone and daytime temperatures heading back into the high 90s, summertime hitch surveys by Tribal EPA departments, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will provide the first real clues as to whether or not the chi have any hope of a future.

Everything hinges on whether or not the adults spawned successfully this spring, demonstrated by healthy counts of juvenile populations this year and in the coming years. If enough juveniles survive to replace dying adults, our next, and potentially insurmountable, hurdle lies in a complex tangle of surface and groundwater use monitoring and enforcement.

For years, local and state officials have collected little to no data from water permit holders, and thus they have no idea of how much water is being withdrawn or stored on farms and in private ponds throughout the spawning season. Even worse, barriers to hitch passage exist on every major spawning tributary, and all it takes is one obstinate landowner to thwart multi-year restoration efforts.

Following a historical, multi-agency emergency summit on the Clear Lake hitch last December, multiple Lake County Tribes are working closely together with state and federal agencies to do what it takes to bring back the hitch. Strides have been made in the past six months but we worry that it is not enough.

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Ensuring we have enough free-flowing water for future hitch runs in the years to come is intrinsically linked to both the county and the state stepping up to regulate agricultural water use—a hot topic in a county where the good-ole-boy culture remains deeply entrenched.

For years, Tribal environmental protection agencies (EPAs) have monitored stream flows and water quality, and documented illegal water diversions, yet our reports largely fell on deaf ears. Although the State Water Resources Control Board has recently begun to ask lakeside farmers and vineyard owners to honestly report and monitor their water usage, we believe this will never happen without significant enforcement. Given that climate change will continue to amp up the frequency and intensity of droughts in California, agricultural practices centered on water conservation make sense for both farmers and fish.

For now, we are doing everything within our power to improve hitch habitat in the hopes they will return. The Big Valley Pomo EPA, renowned for its lake monitoring reports and advocacy for improved water quality standards on Clear Lake, has received additional state funding to monitor stream flows, test for cyanotoxins, mitigate hazardous algal blooms, and replant tule.

The Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake are tagging hitch to better understand their lifecycles and survival rates in the Middle Creek watershed.The Robinson Rancheria EPA is removing invasive carp from Clear Lake, the Lake County Water Resources Department is resubmitting grant proposals to fund restoration efforts, and a new Tribal-centric project that we co-lead, the Cobb Water Education and Restoration Project, conducts workshops with private landowners where Tribal experts lead restoration actions on upstream hitch-bearing creeks in the Adobe, Kelsey, and Cole Creek watersheds.

Earlier this year, California State Parks and the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians signed a memorandum of understanding to co-manage Clear Lake State Park, the site of the ancestral Xabenapo village where hitch-bearing streams feed into the lake. An intertribal effort led by TERA (the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance) is also bringing back “good fire” to Lake County by conducting cultural burns on hundreds of acres, including on neglected tule beds—critical hitch habitat.

Tule burn along Robinson Rancheria shoreline at Clear Lake by the Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance. (Photo credit: Jesus Campanero)

The Tribal EcoRestoration Alliance conducted a tule burn along the Robinson Rancheria shoreline at Clear Lake. (Photo credit: Jesus Campanero)

And once again, we’re driving hundreds of miles to testify at agency meetings to ask state leaders—whose job descriptions include “resource protection,” not “resource exploitation”—to step up, respect traditional ecological knowledge, and do the work that should have been done decades ago. All to save a fish that means everything to us.

A descendent of the Eastern Pomo Xabenapo village and the Colusa Wintun, Ron Montez Sr. is an enrolled member of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians and grew up on Elem Indian Colony, adjacent to the EPA Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine Superfund site. A Pomo Big Head Dancer and Traditional Singer, Ron participated in the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island and the 1970 occupation of lands near Forestville, California, now known as Ya-Ka-Ama (“Our Land”). Read more >

Jeanine Pfeiffer is an ethnoecologist focusing on biocultural diversity: the intrinsic connections between nature and culture. Her award-winning essays, research articles, poems, and films have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, anthologized, broadcast over radio, exhibited in art galleries, and published in major media outlets, literary magazines, and scientific journals. Read more >

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