Being Frank: Salmon Recovery Will Take More Than Money

Being Frank is a column written by Ed Johnstone, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. As a statement from the NWIFC chairman, the column represents the natural resources management concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

There’s no doubt about it. The Biden administration is working hard to pay the price for salmon recovery. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is just an example. We have never seen so much political will and funding on the table for salmon habitat restoration and climate resilience.

The tribes appreciate the unprecedented federal investment in salmon restoration. We applaud the efforts of leaders such as Sen. Maria Cantwell who is pushing to include salmon recovery in the president’s Build Back Better plan. We are grateful to our congressional delegation and our many partners who worked tirelessly for these historic opportunities.

But as I write this, the great Northwest salmon resource is still dwindling and decades of hard work to protect and restore its critical habitat have not been able to keep up with destruction caused by over-development, deforestation and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources. Our fishermen are still sitting on the banks. They’re hungry and it’s only getting worse.

My longtime mentor Billy Frank Jr. once said, “As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

We have been running out of time for decades. Substantial investments already have been invested in salmon recovery and, yes, there have been successes in a few locations. But, overall, the fish stocks are still dying.

There are objectives that must be met if salmon recovery is to be achieved.

The Biden administration must take action on our Treaty Rights at Risk initiative, which called on the federal government in 2011 to honor its obligations to the treaties we signed in the 1850s. Those treaties guaranteed us the continued right to fish, hunt and gather in our usual and accustomed areas – forever. Yet our fishermen are still not fishing.

Federal and state agencies have to rethink their policies of permitting land uses that destroy salmon habitat. Those agencies continue to work in silos, failing to communicate and coordinate effectively with each other, and with the tribes. More effective federal oversight is needed.

Moreover, our federal trustee must enforce existing rules and laws meant to protect habitat, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and court mandates, in a way that reflects the urgent needs of our shared resources. Federal permitting programs must improve shoreline and nearshore habitat protections and stop shoreline hardening. Water quality standards must be protected. Natural floodplain processes must be restored, and we must respond in meaningful ways to climate change.

To help achieve these goals, President Biden should issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to prioritize their legal obligations and develop a strategic action plan to protect our treaty rights. These obligations should include authorization for agencies to modify federal regulations, direct discretionary agency funding to meet salmon recovery needs and recommend any necessary legislative changes.

Long ago, our ancestors signed treaties ceding millions of acres of land and guaranteeing our right to harvest salmon as long as the rivers run. The government has an obligation to assure use of those ceded lands is protective of those harvest rights.

It will take more than money to do that. We need bold actions from our federal trustee. We can’t afford to wait another 10 years.

Upper Skagit tribal fishermen harvest sockeye near the confluence of the Skagit and Baker rivers. Photo: Debbie Preston.