Treaty Indian tribes in western Washington will restrict fisheries again this year – including culturally important ceremonial fisheries – to protect weak salmon runs caused largely by lost and damaged habitat.
“Our ability to catch salmon to supply food for our funerals and ceremonies is being constrained because of low returns, made worse by a lack of will to protect salmon habitat,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Fishing is at the heart of our cultures and economies. Cutting these fisheries is painful, but conservation must come first so that future generations will be able to exercise their treaty-reserved rights.”
Tribal fishing seasons are part of a regional fisheries package developed by the tribal and state co-managers that was approved this week by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Fewer than 19,000 coho are expected to return to the Skagit River. That’s about 80 percent fewer fish than recent average returns. For the second year in a row, the three Skagit River tribes – Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle – will not open a commercial fishery for coho.
About 9,000 coho are projected to return to the Stillaguamish River, or about one-third of recent returns. The Stillaguamish Tribe also will not fish commercially for coho again this year. The tribe hasn’t harvested chinook for nearly 40 years.
Only 362 natural-origin chinook are expected to return to the Dungeness River this year. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe hasn’t fished on Dungeness chinook for more than 30 years.
All tribal fisheries – commercial, subsistence and ceremonial – are being constrained. Ceremonial and subsistence fisheries provide food for funerals, first salmon ceremonies and other cultural events.
“These fisheries closures are the direct consequence of the state of Washington allowing the destruction of salmon habitat for decades,” Loomis said. “Tribal and state fishermen wouldn’t have to drastically cut back our fisheries every year if there were more habitat protection and restoration.”
Low returns of chinook to the Dungeness River are directly tied to the loss of floodplain productivity because of levee construction and flood impacts.
Skagit and Stillaguamish coho are returning in low numbers because of insufficient water. Both the Skagit and the Stillaguamish rivers experienced the lowest flows in recorded history in the summer of 2015. Low water levels lead to high water temperatures that can be lethal to salmon throughout their life cycle.
According to the treaty tribes’ State of Our Watersheds Report, several small coho streams in the Skagit watershed are at risk of high water temperatures, even in good years. The report tracked a startling decline between 2006 and 2011 of forest buffers that help regulate temperatures in those streams.
The loss and destruction of salmon habitat has outpaced habitat restoration despite some western Washington salmon populations being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act more than 15 years ago.
A recent report by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office reflects this finding: “As in other regions of the state, Puget Sound is losing habitat faster than it can be restored. This region has the largest and most rapid population growth in Washington, and is predicted to increase in population faster than before.”
One way we can boost salmon productivity right now, especially weak coho runs, is for the state to increase funding to open up the habitat locked behind fish-blocking culverts,” Loomis said. Every year failing culverts prevent thousands of salmon from reaching good spawning habitat.
Throughout the case, federal courts have consistently upheld that the tribes’ treaty-reserved rights to harvest salmon also include the right for those salmon to be protected and available for harvest. The state has appealed the case at every opportunity.
“There is a direct connection between salmon habitat and how much all of us can fish – treaty tribal as well as non-treaty sport and commercial fishermen,” Loomis said. “We can’t expect salmon to thrive while their habitat continues to be lost and damaged.”