Being Frank: Washington fisheries are managed using a conservation-first approach

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

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the partnership between treaty tribes and our state co-managers to establish salmon fisheries.

Each spring since 1984, we’ve held a series of meetings known as the North of Falcon process, named for the cape on the Oregon coast that marks the southern boundary of the management area for Washington salmon stocks, which extends to the Canadian border.

Fifteen years ago, then-NWIFC Vice Chair Lorraine Loomis said it well: “It seems like it would get easier after 25 years, but it gets harder.” Lorraine walked on in 2021 after decades of coordinating tribal participation in North of Falcon.

We have difficult discussions every year because we’re dividing up a dwindling resource. This year we had to work around limiting numbers of Quillayute coho, Nooksack spring chinook, Stillaguamish chinook, Snohomish chinook and Skagit summer/fall chinook.

We know harvest management alone can’t recover salmon. The problem is that human development is continuing to destroy spawning and rearing habitat, and climate change is compounding this impact, leading to increasingly warmer oceans and natal streams that threaten salmon populations. In watersheds where habitat has degraded to the point it can no longer support salmon spawning, treaty tribes have been leaders in operating hatchery programs to sustain those runs.

For the past 40 years, fisheries in Washington have been managed using a conservation-first approach. Tribal, state and federal harvest managers work together, along with our Canadian counterparts through the Pacific Salmon Commission, to plan sustainable fisheries in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the environmental community, where it isn’t always well understood. When “overfishing” is blamed for declining runs elsewhere in the world, some people jump to the conclusion that all fishing is unsustainable, especially knowing many of our salmon stocks are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Tribes have thousands of years of experience fishing sustainably. It’s in our best interest to make sure enough salmon make it to the spawning grounds—and hatcheries—so the next seven generations have salmon to harvest. We’ve always harvested only as much as we need, and as much as the salmon populations can support. Our job as stewards is to ensure that our actions today don’t take salmon away from future generations.

It’s discouraging when the word “sustainable” is used as a weapon to harm tribal fishing economies. In Washington, no one type of fishing gear is more sustainable than another; it is not more sustainable to harvest the same fish from a different location; and no one type of seafood on a menu is more sustainable than another. When seafood is harvested by treaty tribes—it meets the definition of sustainable.

When we set salmon fisheries, our goal always is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the salmon resource while maximizing harvest opportunities for everyone. Our fisheries target healthy stocks while protecting weak wild runs.

Tribal and state co-managers use Western science and traditional knowledge to tell us how many fish need to return to the spawning grounds to sustain their populations. We set fisheries to ensure we meet this goal, known as escapement, while factoring in the ordeals adult salmon must navigate on their way home.

Unfortunately, for decades treaty tribal fishing has been bearing the brunt of conservation efforts, while those who destroy and degrade habitat are not held to the same standard. Hatchery programs support cooperative co-management, but salmon recovery is a losing battle unless we put the same energy into habitat protection and restoration.

Above: Muckleshoot tribal fishers harvest salmon in Elliott Bay. Photo: North Forty Productions, from the film FISH WAR.