Tribes Lead the Way to Revive Regional Salmon Runs

Fisherman Nisqually: George Stenberg Photography

Fisherman Nisqually: George Stenberg Photography

This article first appeared on, a student-run blog about pressing environmental issues, hosted by the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, “Tribes Lead the Way to Revive Regional Salmon Runs”

By George Thomas Jr.

We are all salmon people, and we know what we need to do.

Such was the message of this year’s Billy Frank Jr. Pacific Salmon Summit, a day-long gathering focused on achieving consensus for immediate and bold action to restore the Pacific region’s diminishing salmon runs. The summit, hosted by Squaxin Island Tribe on November 5 in Shelton, Wash., was a follow-up to last year’s inaugural convening of a broad coalition of groups working toward a consensus to accelerate salmon recovery in the region.

Despite a 20-year, billion dollar effort to restore salmon runs in Washington State, most salmon remain in decline. Puget Sound Chinook salmon are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; the 22 remaining populations are dangerously below federal recovery goals, according to the Puget Sound Partnership. Unsurprisingly, the consensus among summit attendees is the status-quo approach of the past two decades isn’t working.

“Lose the salmon and we are all lost,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) said during a panel at the summit. Heck and Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, both spoke to a common vision and common destiny, with Allen calling salmon the canary of Washington State — a “canary in the coal mine,” referencing how declining salmon runs reflect the dire state of the Puget Sound ecosystem.

The summit represents the formation of a nascent coalition, comprised of once unlikely alliances: Native American tribes, government agencies, multi-generational fishers, and non-profit organizations. The coalition’s namesake, Billy Frank Jr., was at the forefront of defending tribal treaty rights, starting in his teens. At a time when tribal members were denied their right to fish, Frank’s defiant “fish ins” led to confrontations with the authorities and multiple arrests. Ultimately, his actions led to the famous Boldt Decision, which reaffirmed the tribes’ treaty rights to fish in their accustomed places and the right to 50 percent of the salmon they were promised in the treaties.

Billy Frank Jr.

Billy Frank Jr.

Working together for effective action

But with diminishing salmon runs in the region, 50 percent of a diminishing pie is at risk of dwindling to zero. “Band-aid approaches won’t work,” Fawn Sharp, President of Quinault Indian Reservation, said during the summit’s keynote address.

The coalition’s call-to-action memorandum for the coming year emphasizes a return to cooperation fostered by Frank, which “has always been key to natural resources management in our region.” Its three working groups focus on protecting and restoring habitat, increasing production of hatchery fish until natural habitat can be restored, and evaluating and making recommendations on the management of sustainable seal and sea lion (pinniped) populations “that are consistent with the recovery needs for salmon and upholding tribal treaty rights.”

Treaty rights as a tool for salmon recovery

Sharp cited a recent victory for the tribes when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the “culvert case,” a 17-year legal battle, which requires Washington to remove culverts — tunnels that carry a stream or open drain under a road or railroad —  because they obstruct salmon migration. In the case, the tribes successfully argued the state-owned culverts blocked salmon from spawning grounds, infringing upon tribes’ treaty-protected fishing rights — the very rights for which Frank led the fight to protect, and reaffirmed by Boldt.

Sharp, however, also cited the increasing threat of climate change and its potentially dire impact on salmon. She lamented the defeat of Initiative 1631, the state’s high-profile carbon fee that was rejected by Washington voters in 2018. Sharp also noted the coalition’s concern wasn’t just about salmon, but about “all things living.”

“We know what needs to be done, we just need to start doing it,” said Tulalip tribal member Cecilia Gobin, the Puget Sound policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Gobin, who spoke several times during the summit, leads the coalition’s working group focused on pinnipeds. Pinnipeds compete with other predators for salmon, and thus also were a focus of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force. The more salmon the pinnipeds consume, the less salmon available for the orcas, the tribes, and commercial and sports fishers. Pinnipeds are eating approximately 20 to 40 percent of Chinook returning to the Columbia River, according to summit attendee Kelly Susewind, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Malnourished orcas galvanize a response

The starving Southern Residents are but one of many problems galvanizing groups working towards salmon recovery. The diminishing Chinook salmon returns most noticeably spiked in public awareness last year, when the grieving orca, Tahlequah, carried her dead calf for nearly three weeks and some 1,000 miles.

Tahlequah is one of the 73 remaining Southern Resident Killer Whales who have a firm preference for Chinook. As Chinook returns dwindle, malnourishment and starvation have become recurring problems for the endangered Southern Residents, and led to the creation of the governor’s task force.

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, has warned the Southern Residents are nearing biological extinction (a lack of successful reproduction). But for the tribes and other attendees at the summit, losing salmon means cultural extinction.

However, many of the task force’s 49 recommendations remain unfunded by the state legislature. Its final report, released last month, cites the need for continued funding “for multiple biennia” to effectively implement the recommendations needed for salmon recovery.

Action — not talk — before it’s too late

The governor’s task force — a two-year venture — issued its final recommendations October 8, but at the summit there was no talk of ending the coalition after this second gathering. Instead there was a commitment only of where and when to gather again in 2020 to continue the coordinated effort to restore the salmon runs.

“We’ve done all the easy stuff to restore the salmon runs,” said coalition member Mike Grayum, formerly of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Mike means that having done only the easy stuff is why the salmon are in such peril today. He and others who spoke emphasized the need now to do the “hard stuff,” and provide public officials with public support to help them make the tough decisions to implement changes required to save the salmon.

Butch Smith, a third-generation fisherman from Ilwaco and a member of the coalition’s hatchery working group, best summed up the cohesion of the variety of interests represented by the salmon coalition: “There are no sides anymore,” he said. “We’re all on the side of salmon.”