Salmon uniquely define the Northwest experience. They have shaped our cultures. They sustain our ecosystems. They feed our souls and bodies.
Tribal and state natural resources co-management is the law in Washington, but cooperative co-management is a choice we make every day because we know it works. We see it working for Elwha River chinook, Hood Canal summer chum and Snake River fall chinook, where struggling salmon runs have begun to rebound.
In the coming weeks, we’ll begin to plan the approaching salmon fishing season. This process, called North of Falcon, will likely include difficult negotiations as we struggle to share a shrinking resource. Even fisheries on healthy salmon runs are affected by the decline of other distinct populations, due to lost habitat, pollution, predation, climate change and our responsibility to preserve food for southern resident killer whales.
North of Falcon today isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about working together to meet one another’s needs by carefully crafting conservative fisheries that protect the weakest salmon stocks while providing for harvest when possible.
It took us a long time to get here.
When tribes in western Washington ceded land to the U.S. government in the treaties of 1855-56, they reserved the right to fish, hunt and gather in their traditional locations. Salmon were plentiful.
By the early 1900s, salmon were suffering because of poor logging practices, development and over-harvest. During the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ’70s, tribal fishermen were routinely arrested, beaten and jailed when they attempted to exercise their treaty fishing rights.
In 1974, a decision by federal Judge George Boldt in U.S. v. Washington — upheld by the Supreme Court — reaffirmed tribal treaty rights to half of the harvestable salmon returning each year.
Mistrust ran deep in those early days. Much time, money and energy were spent fighting one another in court.
In 1983, Bill Wilkerson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, sat down with Billy Frank Jr., then chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. They agreed to try cooperation instead of litigation to meet shared goals of a healthy resource and sustainable fisheries.
This leadership led to river-by-river and stock-by-stock impacts planning. Then Canada, the United States, tribes and states joined forces to negotiate the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which regulates salmon fisheries between the U.S. and Canada. The Timber/Fish/Wildlife Agreement protected fish and wildlife habitat on private forest lands. The 1989 Centennial Accord further cemented the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the state by providing a forum for shared concerns.
Each of these accomplishments is remarkable in its own right. Together they show progressive cooperation. We are committed to preserving this spirit.
You see this in a new joint riparian habitat initiative that will provide a uniform, science-based management approach to salmon recovery. We need greater protection for the stream side vegetation that lowers water temperatures, filters pollutants and reduces sediment that smothers salmon eggs.
While state and tribal relations can sometimes be strained, we continue to strengthen our relationship in the North of Falcon process. We’re working to prioritize salmon conservation, listen to one another’s needs, seek solutions, communicate, use the best available science to inform decisions, and accurately document, share and react to important data.
The recent State of Salmon in Watersheds report released by the Gov. Jay Inslee’s Salmon Recovery Office shows that for key stocks in need of recovery, at best we are treading water. While harvest restrictions will continue, these alone can’t recover salmon. We believe if tribal, state and local communities seek first to work together, we may see the day — as native trees line meandering waterways and storm water runs cold, slow and clean — when salmon are plentiful again.
This comanagement relationship may have been born from conflict, but it is sustained by the mutually held imperative that we can, and must, cooperate if we are to see salmon continue as a part of future generations’ Northwest experience.