State officials awarded the Lummi Nation tribe this week for its emergency response to the escape of thousands of Atlantic salmon from a net pen at Cypress Island.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recognized the tribe with its Director’s Award.
In August, the failure of Cooke Aquaculture’s net pen at Cypress Island sent more than 150,000 Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea.
The fish, at 10 pounds, infiltrated Puget Sound rivers. As both Cooke Aquaculture, the owner of the pen, and the WDFW struggled to manage the spill, the Lummi Nation launched an emergency response.
Tribal fishermen dropped their work to launch a 24-hour fishery on the Atlantics, declaring a state of emergency to provide a rapid response. Tribal fishers captured 43,522 of the invasive species – 90 percent of all the fish recovered.
Joe Stohr, acting director of the WDFW, this week said the department “was proud and happy,” to give the award to Lummi Nation “for all the oversight and quick response to the Atlantic salmon escape.” It is believed to be the first time the award has been made to a tribe.
An investigation of the incident by three state agencies found Cooke Aquaculture was responsible for the escape because it had not properly maintained and cleaned its nets, leading to a build up of mussels and other sea life that caused the nets to collapse.
The fish escaped as native Pacific salmon were returning to their spawning grounds.
“Lummi Nation’s work to protect our treaty-fishing areas from invasive Atlantic salmon is just part of our commitment to preserving our schelangen, our way of life, for all generations,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation. “We only survive if our salmon survive, so it wasn’t a question whether we would respond quickly to clean up our waters.”
The tribe was also at the forefront of efforts urging the Legislature to pass a bill in February to end net-pen aquaculture of Atlantic salmon in Washington state.
“We are glad the Legislature and the governor did the right thing in protecting our waters and honoring our treaties,” Julius said. “It is a common-sense solution that will help protect the fishery. It shows that long-term solutions are possible when our nations work together and agencies work with tribes. The Lummi Nation will always work to protect the delicate balance of our Salish Sea ecosystem.”
The award marks a steady progression in the relationship between the state and tribes over salmon management. The state and tribes were once in battle over salmon, with state game wardens using billy clubs to push tribal fishers off their treaty-protected fishing grounds.
The Boldt decision in 1974 affirmed the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing rights, and established comanagement of salmon runs and fishing seasons by tribes and the state.
But the relationship remains contentious. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has appealed the decision by multiple courts to require repair of fish-blocking culverts to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A decision on the so-called culvert case is expected next month.