Climate Change Impacts to Tribal Rights and Resources

Today the treaty tribes in western Washington released a comprehensive report on how climate change is hurting tribal treaty rights and natural resources.

This report from the twenty member tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission focuses on the impacts of climate change to our homelands, waters, and ways of life. We have a historical and contemporary relationship with the watersheds and ecosystems of the Pacific Ocean coast, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, and Puget Sound. 

Virtually all of the resources and activities that our treaties protect—fishing, gathering, and hunting—are impacted by the effects of climate change. In this report, we present our collective concerns and an overview on the regional scale of changes in natural systems and the challenges we face.

Download Climate Change and Our Natural Resources: A Report from the Treaty Tribes in Western Washington.

Executive summary (pdf, 4.89 mb)

Full report (pdf, 6.6 mb)

Climate Change Challenges Treaty-Protected Resources

Each species responds to climate change depending on its particular characteristics and the local conditions. Still, there are overarching impacts that have the potential to challenge our ability to exercise our treaty-reserved rights:

  • Declining runs of salmon and steelhead due to changes in streamflow, stream temperature, levels of dissolved oxygen, amount of sediment in streams, susceptibility to disease, ocean temperatures, ocean chemistry, timing of prey availability, prey type, and competition from warm-water species.
  • Migration of marine fish away from historical fishing grounds as they seek out cooler ocean temperatures.
  • Replacement of traditional fish runs with invasive species and new species that have migrated from the south.
  • Declining populations of shellfish (both mollusks and crustaceans) due to changing ocean chemistry.
  • Closing of shellfish harvest areas due to harmful algal blooms.
  • Loss of traditional shellfish harvesting areas, forage fish spawning grounds, and important cultural sites to sea level rise or increased coastal erosion.
  • Loss of water supplies for drinking and other needs due to saltwater intrusion from sea level rise, or changes to precipitation, streamflow, and/or groundwater availability.
  • Declining populations of wildlife and birds due to habitat changes, loss of food sources, disease, and competition with invasive species.
  • Migration of wild game and birds out of traditional hunting grounds as they move farther north or to higher elevations.
  • Decreased plant productivity and shifts in species ranges due to heat stress, drought, invasive species encroachment, or increasing pests.
  • Loss of traditional hunting grounds, plant gathering areas, and sacred sites due to wildfire, landslides, or invasive species.
  • Loss of access routes to important cultural sites due to flooding, bridge damage, permanent road closures, or landslides.
  • Changes in timing of key life stages in a variety of species, such as the migration of salmon, fruiting of berries, or optimal time to harvest cedar bark.
  • Negative societal outcomes from poor air quality, heat stress, spread of diseases, loss of nutrition from traditional foods, and loss of opportunities to engage in traditional cultural activities.

Changes in the Pacific Northwest

Global warming is the increase in global average temperatures that has been recorded around the world. Rising temperatures cause changes to the long-term patterns and variability of climate factors such as wind, humidity, and the type and amount of precipitation. The dominant driver is the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere largely due to burning fossil fuels and changing land use.

In the Pacific Northwest (PNW), the observed and projected trends in physical systems include the following:

  • Warmer air temperatures
  • Shrinking glaciers
  • Less snowfall
  • Decreasing summer streamflows
  • Increasing winter peak flows
  • Changes to timing of peak and low flows
  • Higher stream and lake temperatures
  • Lower levels of dissolved oxygen in streams
  • More sediment delivered into, carried by, and deposited in streams
  • Drying out of wetlands
  • Increased frequency and size of wildfires
  • Greater probability of landslides
  • Warmer ocean temperatures
  • Rising sea levels
  • Changing ocean chemistry, including ocean acidification and dissolved oxygen

These changes are already causing harm in our homelands and waterways. Impacts have already been observed and are projected to continue in freshwater aquatic, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems. These changes have profound implications for the plants and animals important to our communities, ways of life, and treaty-reserved rights.

Along with Challenges, We Find Opportunities

Along with risks, climate change also presents opportunities. In this time of change, we have the chance to develop healthier, self-sustaining ecosystems and to promote resilient, equitable, and flourishing communities.

On behalf of future generations, we are taking action now to prevent the worst harm from climate change. We will continue working together to be proactive in facing future challenges, ensuring ecosystem survival, and protecting our treaty rights and traditional lifeways.

Moving forward entails efforts on two fronts. The first focuses on the reduction of harmful greenhouse gas emissions at local, regional, national, and international levels in order to prevent the worst-case scenarios of climate change impacts from happening. All around the world, indigenous communities are promoting renewable energy sources, better energy efficiency, and the choice to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

The second type of effort enhances the ability of ecosystems and communities to adapt to changing conditions:

  • Developing approaches to natural resources management that consider landscape-scale processes and include innovative solutions
  • Working together to restore natural physical processes and ecological function, and to reduce existing stressors, such as water quality impairment, fish-passage barriers, noxious invasive weeds, and habitat fragmentation
  • Promoting biological diversity, protecting intact ecosystems, and supporting climate refuges—areas where changes are expected to be less severe or to occur more slowly
  • Tracking changes to local environmental conditions, including the use of tribal traditional knowledge of climate patterns and ecosystems as a source for early warning signals
  • Promoting cultural resilience through tribal citizen engagement and education, especially  K-12 education
  • Sharing knowledge and expertise with tribes and non-tribal entities within and outside of the PNW

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