Editor’s note: Research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion have lifted Columbia salmon from the brink of extinction. But the Northwest has yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save the fish that provides spiritual sustenance, food for the table, and hundreds of millions of dollars in business and ecological benefits. This is part of a continuing series exploring the plight of the region’s salmon.
On the Baker River just outside the town of Concrete, dozens of men, women and children from the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe gathered in early July to net their share of a bountiful sockeye salmon run.
During the 2017 season, sockeye returned to the Baker River by the tens of thousands – enough to provide sport for many recreational fishers as well as the tribe’s harvest, while also providing plenty of breeding fish to keep the run healthy.
Given that the run had dwindled to just 99 fish in 1985, the health of the Baker River sockeye run seems to provide proof that depleted salmon runs can be brought back from the brink of extinction, even if few salmon runs enjoy the advantages that enabled Baker River sockeye to make a comeback.
During the July fishery along the Baker River, pickups, nylon tents and canopies crowded a short stretch of shady riverbank just downstream from the Highway 20 bridge. A few dozen tribal fishers were gathered to wait their turn to drift down the swift, clear waters in small skiffs, maneuvering their gillnets as the current carried them into the Skagit River.
After each drift, fishers reeled in the nets to pull out a few fish – often no more than two or three.
Fishing key to who they are as a people
Tribal fisherman Larry Peterson, who drifted the river with his wife Tara and 16-year-old daughter Rochelle, said the sockeye catch provided him and his family with more than food and a bit of income: It’s a part of who they are as a people. If the salmon are lost, the children in the tribe will lose something that can’t be replaced.
“We hope and pray that fishing will continue, so when they’re of age, they can be on the river,” Peterson said. “You teach them every aspect of the cultural life, but if you can’t connect them with this part of it, it doesn’t line up.”
It’s a connection that is already tenuous. Peterson, now 45, remembers spending weeks outdoors with his family as a teenager, fishing the salmon runs on the Skagit system. Now, that system provides the tribe with just a few days of fishing per year. Were it not for Baker River sockeye, tribal fishers might have few, if any, salmon to catch.
Many of the runs of other Skagit salmon species remain depressed. It’s been about 10 years since the Skagit’s chum runs could support a fishery. Coho returns have also been disappointing, and fisheries biologists are still trying to figure out why. Poor ocean conditions and commercial fishing on the high seas are possible factors.
Farther north, many Nooksack River salmon runs are also in trouble – most notably the chinook. Decades of effort to bolster the Nooksack chinook runs have failed to get those runs above a few hundred returning spawners per year.
State water rights issue impacts fishing
In Whatcom County and many other places in the state, that population increase is putting pressure on the volume of water that gets into creeks that support salmon. A Washington state Supreme Court ruling out of Whatcom County, known as the Hirst decision, has made it much more difficult for landowners across the state to get permits to drill wells to serve planned new home construction. That’s because too much underground water extraction reduces the flow in nearby creeks, affecting salmon as well as other water users downstream.
Water is a finite resource. If we fail to protect it, we fail in our responsibility to future generations who are counting on us for the water they will need to survive.
Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
In position papers published online, officials from Lummi Nation and other Northwest tribes say they want to work with state and local officials to resolve these issues. But for the moment, any movement toward solutions has bogged down amid polarized state politics.
Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the state needs new practices that recognize that water supplies are not unlimited.
“Water is a finite resource,” Loomis said in a news release. “If we fail to protect it, we fail in our responsibility to future generations who are counting on us for the water they will need to survive.”
Tribal members say they are determined to see that salmon remain a part of the fabric of life for their children and generations to come, even if salmon can no longer provide them with the life their ancestors lived.
“Just being out on the river is blessing enough,” said Jennifer Washington, chairwoman of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “We hope and pray that fishing will continue, so when (our children) are of age, they can be on the river.”
Merle Jefferson, Lummi Nation’s natural resources director, expressed similar sentiment in an introduction to the tribe’s 2016 “State of Our Watersheds Report.”
“Our elders used to tell us salmon is good medicine,” Jefferson said. “It’s part of our schelangen – our way of life. Now the salmon is in trouble, so our way of life is in trouble.”