50 years since Boldt, tribal access to salmon remains fragile

Marking the 50th anniversary of Judge George Boldt’s Feb. 12, 1974, ruling in U.S. v. Washington, hundreds of members of treaty tribes gathered at the Muckleshoot Events Center to reflect on the times that preceded that pivotal moment in court and the decades since. 

Over two days, speakers including Fish Wars veterans from multiple tribes, attorneys who worked in various capacities on the case, and some of Boldt’s descendants discussed the turmoil that led to the famous treaty rights lawsuit and the ways it has changed fisheries management. 

Several speakers recalled tribal fishermen attempting to harvest salmon from Northwest rivers under the cover of darkness prior to the Boldt decision to avoid the arrests, beatings, and destruction of gear that they often endured in the daylight. 

Tribal leaders also shared how they are continuing to fight for their treaty fishing rights to be honored in an era when sustaining the resource—and therefore access to it—is increasingly challenged by human population growth, development, pollution and the impacts of climate change. 

“You guys have got a lot of work to do,” said Doreen Maloney, an elder and general manager of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. Maloney shared memories from the Fish Wars, challenges she faced in implementing fishing rules in tribal courts following the Boldt decision, and her concerns about the current state of the environment.

In reaffirming tribes’ treaty rights to harvest fish on and off reservations, the Boldt decision helped end the volatile civil rights battle of the 1960s and 1970s. But 50 years on, treaty fishing rights are increasingly threatened by environmental degradation.  

“What we have is fragile,” said Makah Chairman Timothy “TJ” Greene Sr., who served as a witness for the event. “Boldt is a true success story in the court system, but it’s fragile.” 

Tribes have worked for decades to protect salmon runs from extinction by limiting their own harvest, producing supplemental populations at hatcheries and restoring habitat. Despite year after year of releasing millions of fish from tribal hatcheries and investing millions of dollars in habitat projects, however, many salmon runs remain at unsustainably low numbers. 

The consensus of several speakers at the US v. WA 50 event was that more needs to be done by state co-managers and federal trustees to move the region’s salmon populations from barely surviving to thriving. 

“Even though we’ve had billions of dollars—not millions but billions—invested in salmon recovery, we’re still losing ground,” said NWIFC executive director Justin Parker. Quoting Billy Frank Jr., he added, “We are at a crossroads and we are running out of time.”

More than 500 people attended the two-day event.

For some, the discussions revisited painful times in the region’s history. For others, it offered first-time insight into that past. For all, the event offered a call to action to stay the course in the fight to sustain salmon for the next seven generations.  

“In another 50 years we are still going to be here, and we will be even stronger,” said Fawn Sharp, vice chair of the Quinault Indian Nation. “Our ways are ancient and timeless.”


The court proceedings

Judge George Hugo Boldt’s Feb. 12, 1974, ruling in U.S. v. Washington reaffirmed that in treaties signed with the United States in 1855, tribes secured the right to fish where their communities were accustomed to doing so, whether those areas were on or off Indian reservations. The ruling also found that the treaty tribes were entitled to half of the catch and recognized the tribes as co-managers of the fisheries with the state.

In a subproceeding in 1994, federal Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that the treaties also covered shellfish because tribes had considered salmon, clams and other aquatic species to be “fish” at the time of the treaty signings.

Subsequent decisions  found that because hatcheries and sufficient habitat are necessary to meet the promises of the treaties—that the tribes would always have an adequate supply of fish—hatchery fish and habitat health are also protected under the treaties.

Tribes leveraged their treaty-protected right to a healthy environment in a later subproceeding under U.S. v. Washington referred to as the culvert case. In 2007, federal Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that state-owned culverts under roads and bridges violate treaty rights because they impede fish migration, which has led to a decline in salmon populations. The state was ordered to increase efforts to repair or replace inadequate fish passage by 2030.

“To say the Boldt decision has had profound effects on the entire citizenry of Washington state would be an understatement,” said Phil Anderson, Pacific Salmon Commissioner, former director of WDFW, and former operator of a charter fishing boat. “In my view, the Boldt decision revolutionized salmon management by creating a holistic regime … addressing every source of mortality from the time the fish leave the gravel to the time they return to spawn.”


Above: Makah Chairman Timothy “TJ” Greene served as one of four witnesses at the U.S. v. Washington 50th anniversary event held February 6-7, 2024, at the Muckleshoot Events Center. Story and photo by Kimberly Cauvel.

More event information –

US v WA : 50th Anniversary