Pat Neal on the Fish Wars

Pat Neal, a longtime outdoors writer from the Olympic Peninsula had a great column recently about the history of fisheries management and the Fish Wars. Here it is, in its entirety:

Thank you for reading this. Sometimes I think if you didn’t read this no one would. But you do. I know this because you send me the most wonderful cards and letters. For example, lately I was accused of presenting a one sided view of American history where the Native Americans helped the first European settlers in the new world only to be repaid for their kindness by being “wiped off the map.”

The reader(s) complained that this scenario ignores the fact that the Indians were savages known for scalping people, sometimes when they were still alive.

That’s got to hurt however, I should point out, the Indians did not invent the practice of scalping. Back in the dark and distant days of our history, scalping was a common practice of many different races, creeds and colors. White men were known to scalp Indians to claim the bounty. Which begs the question, who were the savages?

The Indians of the North Olympic Peninsula never scalped anyone. They were head hunters! Despite this fact, the historical records of the earliest pioneers tell how their survival often depended upon the kindness of the Indians in providing food, shelter, transportation and intelligence in what was a raw and dangerous wilderness.

There could be many reasons for this beyond the natural hospitality of the Native American culture.

There was trade. The Europeans wanted furs, gold and women. The Indians wanted metal, alcohol and gun powder.

The resulting clash of cultures gave us the treachery and slaughter of the fur trade. With the extinction of the sea otter the fur trade died out. This did not stop successive waves of American pioneers from coming here seeking free land.

American claims to the North Olympic Peninsula could not be validated until the Indian ownership of the land was extinguished. That’s where the treaties came in. Once the Indians were put on to reservations, their lands could be thrown open to homesteaders.

In return for their lands, the tribes were granted the rights to fish, clam and whale as long as the sun would shine and the grass would grow etc.

At the time these resources were seen as inexhaustible. Since then however, the fish have become endangered, the clams have been polluted and whale watching has replaced whaling as an industry. This leaves many of us wondering who is to blame for our natural resources becoming endangered?

As a fishing guide, you’d think I would be the first to blame the Indians for the endangered fish. And why not? The Indians gill net the rivers. Every dead wild steelhead in a gillnet is one less I can catch. Every wild steelhead I catch and release is one more the tribes can net and kill as the result of the lost opportunity clause of the Boldt decision.

Our fish are the casualties of a war where both sides tried to kill as many as they could simply because they could. The fish that are left are being plundered by a cabal of government employed environmental carpetbaggers pandering junk science as an excuse for responsible management.

It would almost be too easy to blame the tribal nets for the poor fishing except for one thing. Two things actually, the lower Quinault and Sooes Rivers. They are managed by the tribes exclusively for gill net fishing and yet they can provide the best sport fishing we have.

What do these two rivers have in common? The State of Washington has nothing to do with them.

Think about that the next time you blame the Indians for the fishing.