Treaty Tribes and Washington State Agree on Puget Sound Salmon Fishing

Courtesy Swinomish Fish and Game Enforcement via Facebook/Swinomish tribal fishers pull in catch during days of plenty in 1987. This year the Puget Sound salmon fishery was all but closed because of low returns. It took an extra month to hammer out an agreement on how to handle the fishery with such low numbers.

After Long Wait, Treaty Tribes and Washington State Agree on Puget Sound Salmon Fishing.

After more than a month of overtime negotiations, the treaty tribes in western Washington have reached an agreement with Washington state on the Puget Sound salmon fisheries for the 2016 season.

Jim Unsworth, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) said state and tribal fisheries would be greatly reduced this year in Puget Sound because low returns of chinook, chum and coho were expected.

It was the first time state and tribal co-managers could not reach agreement during the annual season-setting process, which concluded in mid-April.

“Cooperative co-management showed us the way,” Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said in a statement.

“Our first priority is to develop fisheries that are consistent with efforts to protect and rebuild wild salmon stocks,” Unsworth said in a statement. “Reaching an agreement on how to do that proved very challenging this year. Ultimately, we agreed on a package of fisheries that places a priority on conservation while allowing for limited fishing opportunities in Puget Sound.”

Western Washington is unique because 20 treaty tribal nations and the WDFW jointly manage the salmon resource and share the harvestable number of fish returning each year.

“That job was a lot easier when there were more fish to go around,” Loomis said. “But salmon populations have been declining steadily for decades because their habitat is disappearing faster than it can be restored. Salmon returns the past couple of years—especially coho—have taken a sharp turn for the worse.”

With this season’s fisheries resolved, state and tribal co-managers plan to address long-term resource management concerns, such as restoring habitat and boosting salmon stocks.

“There is a direct connection between salmon habitat and fishing opportunities,” Loomis said. “We can’t expect salmon to thrive while their habitat continues to be lost and damaged. From birth to death, habitat is the single most important aspect of a salmon’s life. As the habitat goes, so go the salmon and tribal culture and their treaty fishing rights.”

Governor Jay Inslee’s office, officials from the treaty tribes, and WDFW officials also agreed to work together to improve the process of setting salmon-fishing seasons, which they call North of Falcon.

Apart from the agreement, a federal action under the Endangered Species Act through the Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed a tribal fishery for three two-day openings during May that gave tribes the chance to catch the first salmon of the season.

The move angered some sports anglers, even though these fisheries had no impact on the long-term sustainability of salmon runs, and despite the cultural importance that first salmon ceremonies have held for their culture for centuries.

The anglers gathered 20 strong to protest while Swinomish tribal fishers used gill nets to catch hatchery and wild spring salmon on May 4 on the Skagit River. The sports fishermen waved signs that read, “Fair Fisheries for Washington,” and “Pull the Nets,” among other slogans.

Photo: EricWilkinson/Twitter/Sports anglers wave protest signs from bridge overlooking Swinomish tribal fishery on May 4, 2016.

Loomis said these fisheries allowed the tribes to exercise their treaty rights within conservation objectives developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and agreed to by the treaty tribes and state.

The protest was reminiscent of the “Fish Wars” during the 1960s and ’70s between sports anglers and tribal fishers like Billy Frank Jr., who were fighting to have their treaty fishing rights recognized by the state. It led to the 1974 Boldt Decision, which allowed treaty right fishers to take up to half of all potential harvests. It also required that they have an equal voice in the management of the fishery.

“We are disappointed that some sportsmen may protest our treaty fisheries,” Loomis said. “All winter and spring, sports anglers in Puget Sound have targeted immature chinook salmon called blackmouth. Some of these blackmouth are spring chinook destined for tribal terminal fishing areas in rivers. If sportsmen wanted to spend their energy more productively, they could work with the tribes to protect and restore salmon habitat, which is being lost faster than it can be restored, and is the main cause for the ongoing decline of salmon across the region.”

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