Salmon extinction is not an option, but harvest management alone is not going to get us to recovery.
In April, treaty tribes in Western Washington and our state co-manager finalized the 2023-24 fishing seasons agreement. The tribes and state have the same goal—when there are harvestable numbers of salmon returning, we provide sustainable fishing opportunities for everyone. That’s the sharing principle defined by Judge Boldt’s 1974 decision in U.S. v. Washington.
It’s getting harder and harder to meet our conservation goals because of diminishing returns and loss of habitat.
Earlier this year, when Gary Morishima, Quinault Indian Nation’s natural resources technical adviser, accepted the 2023 Larry Rutter Memorial Award for Pacific Salmon Conservation, he said we can’t afford to labor under the delusion that harvest management will restore salmon productivity and abundance.
“All things are connected,” he said. “Taking must be balanced by giving. If we have failed to accept the responsibility and accountability for salmon, we’re no longer going to enjoy the gifts they provide.” It’s going to take all hands working in concert, Morishima said. “We need to work together to stop the ongoing destruction of habitat, contamination of our water, and predation by seals and sea lions.”
In spite of the millions of dollars spent restoring habitat in Western Washington, we still have land use policies that prioritize the short-term economic gains of development over the long-term health of our ecosystem. Tribes are facing immediate loss of our treaty-protected rights to fish, hunt and gather. The only way to reverse that trend is for developers to be required to acknowledge and support ecological function, not destroy it.
Meanwhile, our fish continue to be poisoned by contamination from both agricultural and urban sources, along with legacy contaminants trapped in sediment across the region. Stormwater runoff is flushed into our streams containing a chemical from tire debris called 6PPD-Q, which is known to kill coho salmon.
We are counting on the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the state’s aquatic life criteria, the standards that determine how much of a chemical can be present in surface water before it is likely to harm plant and animal life. The criteria are based on the known science at the time they were adopted in 1986.
Another outdated federal policy, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, also needs to be examined for the imbalance it has caused in pinniped populations—the seals and sea lions that feed on six times as many salmon in Puget Sound as tribal and nontribal fisheries combined.
The act was meant to protect fur seals, dolphins and whales in response to population declines caused by humans. It was never meant to abrogate tribal treaty rights. We need a new marine mammal strategy to control predation in rivers throughout Western Washington to protect out-migrating smolts and returning adult salmon and steelhead.
None of those things alone can ensure there will be salmon for the next seven generations. We need a holistic approach. In the meantime, tribal and state hatcheries are more important than ever to protect threatened stocks from going extinct and provide fishing opportunities to everyone.
Tribes have done a lot of work to restore and protect habitat and rebuild salmon populations. We’ve reduced our chinook harvest from 60% up to 95% since the 1980s. During this year’s process to set tribal and state fisheries, the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians gave up entire fisheries. That’s our reality. We’re on our way to having a treaty right to harvest a fish that doesn’t exist.
We need to see more political will from our co-managers and federal trustees to address the environmental factors preventing us from recovering salmon, and we must act before it’s too late.
Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. His column runs monthly in this newspaper.