It wasn’t long ago that all salmon returning to western Washington were lumped together and managed as a whole. Only after the treaty tribes became co-managers in the 1970s did salmon management begin on a river-by-river basis using hard, accurate data.

Every single year since then we’ve been refining our fisheries management approach. Our goal is to return all salmon stocks to sustainable harvest levels because we believe that is the true measuring stick for salmon recovery.

I wonder what it would be like if habitat protection were managed to the same standard?

The state co-managers joined some tribes, such as Muckleshoot, Nisqually and Puyallup, in closing coho fisheries this fall because returns were too low to support harvest.

No one suggested that we also tear out the river’s dikes or fix the other habitat problems that are the root cause of the low runs. We stop fishing, but habitat loss and damage goes on every hour of every day.

Why are fishermen always the first—and often only—people asked to sacrifice for the resource? Why must fishermen feel the pain for everyone else?

Ten years after salmon stocks in western Washington were first listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, we still have no good way to assess how much habitat we have, how much we’re losing and how much we need. We must work harder to fill the gaping holes in what we know about habitat productivity.

We have developed a tool to track the limiting factors to salmon recovery, identify how they can be addressed and determine actions needed to move forward with habitat restoration and protection. This kind of work, at the watershed level, has been promised for years by governments, agencies and others involved in salmon recovery, but it is the treaty tribes who are taking on the job. We’re finishing analyses of the Skokomish and Snohomish watersheds right now, and will complete analyses for every watershed in western Washington over the next year.

For 30 years we have been refining salmon fisheries management to achieve salmon recovery, but it isn’t working. What we need to do is to change how we manage the landscape that these fish depend on.

The only way we’re going to turn the corner and really restore salmon is to put the same focus on habitat protection and restoration that has been placed on harvest management. Salmon recovery begins and ends with good habitat. Without a good home to return to, no amount of fisheries restrictions will restore this precious resource.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180