Subsistence fishery puts food in tribal members’ freezers

For just a few hours one morning in May, Lummi Nation tribal members in about a dozen aluminum boats took turns motoring up a stretch of the lower Nooksack River, letting out a net and drifting back downstream.

Every now and then, buoys lining the nets would bob in the water; a sign that a fish might be entangled below.

“It’s a great day when you can see the fishermen out on the water here,” tribal member and natural resources deputy director Victor “Turtle” Johnson said while observing from the riverbank.

Lummi fishermen pull their net from the Nooksack River during a subsistence fishery in May.

Lummi permitted 16 tribal elders to partake in a subsistence fishery that day, called the Paq wet sut Mother’s Day fishery in honor of the late Randy Kinley, who championed treaty fishing rights on the Nooksack River, said Ben Starkhouse, Lummi fisheries harvest manager. Cultural and subsistence fisheries like this one enable tribal members to take fish home, share them and save them for important events, like funerals and ceremonies.

“This is putting fish in community freezers,” said Tom Chance, the tribe’s salmon enhancement program manager.

After several drifts during the short-lived fishery, fishermen brought their catches of silver-sided chinook to a riverbank data collection site to be measured, weighed, sampled for DNA and scanned for research tags. This analysis is required for each fish caught.

While waiting for his fish to be sampled, tribal member and natural resources department director Merle Jefferson said he was looking forward to enjoying chinook for dinner that night. An elder, Jefferson, 72, said fishing has been important to him his entire life, since spending his childhood along the river.

Lummi fisherman Mario Gaona holds up a chinook caught in May while fisherman Johnny Olsen looks on.

Today, the ability of the tribe to fish is dependent on hatcheries, including Lummi’s own Skookum Creek Fish Hatchery on the South Fork Nooksack River. That’s because of declines in fish populations from commercial overharvest, habitat loss due to sprawling development, and the impacts of climate change.

“We’re in an era now where there will be no fisheries without hatcheries,” Chance said.

Hatchery fish are the target population in the Paq wet sut fishery. But the tribe’s fisheries are limited by the number of interactions with natural-origin chinook, because the Nooksack River run is part of a threatened population under the Endangered Species Act.

During the Paq wet sut fishery, eight natural-origin chinook and 83 hatchery chinook were harvested, Starkhouse said. The tribe’s natural-origin chinook catch limit for this year, under the North of Falcon agreement between treaty tribes and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife comanagers, is 28 fish.

Above: Lummi fisherman Troy Olsen lifts a chinook from the Nooksack River in May while fisherman Dana Wilson pulls in the rest of their net. Photos and story: Kimberly Cauvel