Tribal Fisheries Respond To Endangered Species Act

Olympia, 7/15/98– Don’t be surprised if you see tribal fishermen exercising their treaty rights this summer and autumn in the waters of western Washington.

Superficial news coverage would portray fishing as the primary cause in the decline of many wild salmon populations. That’s because fisheries are a highly visible “taking” of the resource. There is no question, however, that the loss and degradation of good spawning and rearing habitat to urbanization, pollution, dams, improper logging practices, water withdrawals and other less visible manmade causes “take” more salmon than all fishermen ever could.

Tribal fisheries management is based on science, not public perception. If identifiable surpluses of salmon can be harvested in Elliott Bay, the Strait of Juan de Fuca or anywhere else in western Washington, the tribes will fish. Non-Indians should fish, too. It isn’t bad to fish, and it isn’t wrong. Fishing is the desirable outcome of good fish management that is consistent with the productivity of salmon populations.

For 1998, treaty Indian tribes have adopted another extremely conservative package of fisheries regulations that will protect weak stocks of wild chinook and coho salmon.

Tribal fisheries in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and northern Puget Sound will target only healthy stocks of sockeye and chum salmon, while minimizing incidental harvests of weak wild chinook and coho. All other treaty fisheries in terminal areas, such as at the mouths of rivers, will focus on identifiable surpluses of chinook, coho and chum salmon. Mostly, these fisheries will target healthy returns of hatchery salmon.

Tribal fisheries managers have steadily reduced harvests for the past decade in response to declining wild salmon populations. In 1987, for example, treaty Indian fishermen caught nearly 300,000 chinook. Last year, the tribal harvest was about 115,000 chinook — a 62 percent reduction. Coho harvest reductions have been even more dramatic. In 1987, tribal fishermen landed about 1.2 million coho. Last year, the tribal coho harvest was about 158,000 — a reduction of about 87 percent. Hatchery surpluses comprised most of the tribal harvest of all species last year.

Even the most severe fisheries management actions — such as allowing no fisheries — have failed to restore wild salmon runs. That’s because habitat degradation and loss is occurring faster than we can reduce or eliminate fisheries. Even if we were to end all fishing everywhere today, some runs would still become extinct simply because their habitat has been destroyed or degraded to the point that it can no longer sustain them.

Fishing defines the tribes as a people. It was the one thing above all else that the tribes wished to retain during treaty negotiations with the federal government 150 years ago. Nothing was more vital to the tribal way of life then, and nothing is more important now.

The tribes didn’t trade most of what is now western Washington for the “privilege” of sitting on the beach when the salmon come home to spawn. Tribal fishermen are not responsible for the salmon’s decline, yet are continually expected to bear a disproportionate share of the salmon conservation burden.

The proposal earlier this year by the National Marine Fisheries Services to protect Puget Sound chinook under the Endangered Species Act made the Seattle area the largest metropolitan area to ever come under a proposed listing. There is little doubt that Puget Sound chinook will be listed as “threatened” under the ESA, but it would be a wrong if we rely solely on the ESA’s species-by-species approach to preventing extinction. The treaty Indian tribes are not interested in any goal other than rebuilding threatened wild salmon runs — and the ecosystems on which they depend — to historic levels that can again sustain harvest. Anything less should be unacceptable to everyone.

The tribes have voluntarily reduced harvests, worked hard to improve and protect salmon habitat, minimized impacts of hatchery salmon on wild stocks and taken many other actions in response to the needs of wild salmon stocks. Unless the state’s business and political leaders commit to protecting and improving the salmon’s home, however, all of the harvest reductions and other efforts to save the wild salmon will have been wasted.

Tribal fishermen have no more sacrifices to make. Heaping the conservation burden on tribal harvesters at the end of the line is unfair, unproductive, and won’t bring the salmon back.

The tribes have fought too hard for too long to let the salmon and their treaty rights to harvest salmon go extinct. This summer and fall you will see tribal fishermen doing what they have always done — fish. Remember, not all salmon are endangered. Some can still be safely harvested by a people whose very being is defined by the act of fishing.


For more information contact: Billy Frank Jr., (360) 438-1180, or Tony Meyer, (360) 438-1181 ext. 325.)