Quinault Lake has been a place of nurture since glaciers carved the lake and river valley in their retreat some 15,000 years ago.
But these thousands of years of pristine tranquility have come undone. The Quinault Tribe has closed the lake to non-tribal fishing until further notice, concerned about pollution and low salmon return numbers.
The Quinault people have always found physical and spiritual sustenance in the majestic landscape and wealth of resources in the Quinault Lake area. The sockeye salmon, too, consider Quinault Lake to be a place of nurture; sockeye returning from their ocean odyssey spend three to 10 months in Quinault Lake prior to moving on to spawn in the Upper Quinault River. While in the lake, bluebacks subsist on their fat reserves.
“Culturally, this salmon run links Quinault people to their rich heritage as nothing else does,” according to Quinault Nation fisheries biologists, who documented salmon significance to the tribe in 1990. “The salmon was always the very lifeblood of Quinault society, and the blueback was the most sacred of the various fish runs.”
But in the years since the first non-Native residents arrived in the 1880s, this sacred lake has been troubled. Early residents described the Upper Quinault River as a large stream that flowed between two narrow, heavily wooded banks. But logging in the ensuing years has widened the river valley, and the stream now meanders erratically. Moreover, storm runoff has led to prolonged periods of lake turbidity.
Leachate from septic systems serving waterfront homes is believed to be the cause of degraded water quality. Bulkheads and docks have been built without permits, altering the shoreline habitat for salmon and other fish.
“We’re not willing to let our lake die,” Quinault Nation Treasurer Lawrence Ralston said.
The Quinault Indian Nation, which has jurisdiction over the lake, has closed it to all non-tribal fishing because of water quality and low sockeye salmon returns. This is in effect until further notice, Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp said on April 16, adding that the decision had been unanimous.
“This action has been taken to protect the lake and is an emergency measure to protect the health and safety of all our communities,” Sharp said. “We are very concerned about water quality in the lake. We are concerned that non-tribal septic systems from the surrounding homes and businesses may have resulted in a severe problem with untreated sewage and caused serious health concerns.”
During the closure, the tribe will study the water quality and see if it complies with tribal regulations, Sharp said. Already, she said, the tribe has found “hot spots of pollution” and will need to monitor any fish taken by tribal members during the closure.
“We will not reopen the lake to non-Indian fishermen until we consider it safe and appropriate to do so,” Sharp said.
In addition the Nation has documented new, unpermitted docks and bulkheads on the lake’s north shore. Other illegal activities, including fish poaching and boats speeding on the lake, have also been documented, Sharp said.
“The Nation’s intention is to work closely with landowners on the lake to address these concerns,” Sharp said. “The goal is to [ensure] that any permitted structures on the lake are ‘fish friendly’ and will not contribute to degradation of habitat.”
Quinault Nation officials will also meet with the Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners to request county inspection of septic systems along the north shore. The tribal officials want to determine whether corrective measures are needed to prevent the fouling of lake waters, particularly during storms. While Quinault has jurisdiction over the lake, Grays Harbor County has jurisdiction over non-Native residents and private homes.
The Lake Quinault Lodge, which is owned by the National Park Service, and the local homeowners association newsletter acknowledge that the lake is within the reservation and thus falls under the jurisdiction of the Quinault Indian Nation. But that authority and jurisdiction are apparently not always understood—let alone acknowledged and respected—by non-Native residents.
“The Nation must remind residents that use of the lake is a privilege and not a right,” the Quinault Nation said in its statement announcing the closure.
“When we choose to lease our lands to proprietors, or to allow non-Tribal members to share our resources, we do so with the expectation that they will abide by Quinault law, practice good stewardship and treat this beautiful lake with the respect it deserves,” Sharp added.
Closure of the lake to non-tribal fishing is the latest of many attempts to restore the body of water’s health as well as its salmon population. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the number of returning bluebacks dropped from as many as 500,000 in the early 1900s to about 39,000 in the 1990s. Since 2000, the Quinault Nation has invested more than $5 million in blueback habitat restoration, including restoration on the Upper Quinault River, and monitoring.
Quinault officials have requested $5.7 million from Congress for continued blueback restoration work, and the Washington State Senate is budgeting $2.8 million for restoration work on the Upper Quinault River. The federal money will help fund the building of up to 140 engineered logjams and 537 acres of forest restoration planting. The state funding will help pay for the installation of 14 logjams.
“It is our responsibility to manage this unique resource as part of our heritage, in a way that will benefit our people—today and in the future,” Sharp said. “We are working very hard to protect, preserve and restore this region, including the Upper Quinault and Lake Quinault, in a way that is true to our heritage and that will benefit the entire area.”
Quinault is also researching how low-oxygen events may be affecting Dungeness crab populations off the tribe’s ocean shores. Crab fishermen would use special instruments that measure dissolved oxygen from inside crab pots.
“Right now, all we know is that dead fish and crab have washed up on our shores in varying degrees in the summer for the past few years,” Quinault Nation marine scientist Joe Schumacker told the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We have no idea how far the low oxygen zones extend or how long they last. We see a result and we need to define the problem.”
The die-off could be unprecedented: There is no oral history among Quinault people for consecutive seasons of this sort of die-off, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.