Native American tribe's 'spiritual' search for endangered salmon in Canterbury river

A Native American tribe has sent a delegation to the Canterbury High Country to investigate a genetic link with our salmon.

The fish was first exported to New Zealand in the 19th Century - and now, 120 years later, there's a chance they could be sent back to parts of California.

The Winnemem Wintu tribe are looking for their native Chinook salmon in the remote upper reaches of the Rakaia River, in the hope they'll find a genetic match.

"They have to be built to climb a mountain in cold waters, the same as these guys are coming up to these mountains," says tribe chief Caleen Sisk.

The Chinook salmon became extinct on part of the Sacramento River, when the settlers built a dam in 1945. A few eggs were exported here, and now the salmon run in rivers across the West Coast and Canterbury.

The delegation has enlisted the help of fish and game to net 70 fish, taking DNA samples that will be used to assess whether they really are the same species.

"Ultimately, if we can get that opportunity to repay the Winnemem people with the winter run genetics, it would be absolutely amazing," says Dirk Barr from Fish and Game.

Back in the 1800s, the species was exported to 14 different countries. But the only place it survived was here in the South Island.

Salmon are now critically endangered across California. For the Winnemem Wintu, it's a tragic loss as they have a deep spiritual connection with the fish.

"What we believe is that whatever happens to the salmon happens to us - so when the salmon lost their homes, so did we," says Chief Sisk. "And now they're dwindling out, and so are we."

It's hoped the DNA will return a match, giving the tribe a chance to save their pride and joy.


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