As tribes and others work to restore salmon habitat and thus preserve both treaty rights and longstanding tradition, development is encroaching on those efforts. This is partly because recovering the populations that contributed to Native health and well-being for millennia involves numerous agencies and jurisdictions—interests that often are not working in concert. Moreover, those efforts can conflict with federal recovery goals for salmon habitat, as ICTMN reported on September 1.
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chairman Billy Frank Jr. says the federal government has a responsibility as a signatory to treaties guaranteeing the region’s First Peoples access to the salmon that is so important to indigenous culture, health and spirituality.
“As sovereign nations, 20 Indian tribes signed treaties with the United States, ceding most of the land that is now western Washington, but reserving rights to harvest salmon and other natural resources,” Frank wrote in “Treaty Rights at Risk,” a report on salmon habitat conditions that launched a restoration initiative of the same name. “Today, those fishing rights are being rendered meaningless because the federal and state governments are allowing salmon habitat to be damaged and destroyed faster than it can be restored.”
Little has changed since the report was first released in 2011. Salmon populations in Washington have been declining for generations, and most salmon and bull trout are listed as endangered or threatened in three-quarters of the state. Most tribal hatcheries are mitigation hatcheries, raising fish to supplement wild stocks that have been decimated.
“If there were no hatcheries, there’d be no fish,” Frank said in a 2012 interview with ICTMN. “The viable runs are all gone.”
According to the fisheries commission, tribal harvest has been reduced to levels not seen since before the 1974 U.S. vs. Washington ruling that reaffirmed tribal treaty-reserved rights and status as co-managers with the right to half of the harvestable salmon returning to Washington waters.
“Some tribes have lost even the most basic ceremonial and subsistence fisheries that are a foundation of tribal life,” Frank said.
On Bellingham Bay, for instance, several public and private partners have begun cleanup of a former Georgia-Pacific pulp and tissue mill site, where paper products were manufactured from 1925 to 2007. According to the state Department of Ecology, contamination at the site includes acidic soil, dioxins, metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds. As that cleanup continues, the Lummi Nation is working against the development of a coal-rail export terminal at nearby Cherry Point. If developed, up to 48 million metric tons of coal would be shipped per year from the terminal. Lummi and others say coal dust and additional shipping traffic would further damage a sensitive and already stressed marine habitat.
In anticipation of the project, developer SSA Marine cleared and graded 9.1 acres of wetland forest and shrub areas without permits; the clearing and grading also disturbed culturally sensitive areas. The penalty: The state Department of Natural Resources issued SSA Marine a "Notice to Comply" and the county issued an after-the-fact determination of non-significance.
Another example: Cleanup of the Duwamish River continues. But so do spills from industrial uses along the riverfront. In October 2012, workers at Independent Metals spilled 10 gallons of diesel oil onto the dock. A worker used detergent and a hose to scrub the dock and rinse the oil and detergent into the river. The company did not report the spill. The penalty: The state Department of Ecology fined Industrial Metals $5,000.
As the salmon disappear, it’s not just indigenous people and their life-ways at risk.
“That salmon is us. All of us,” Frank said, referring to all inhabitants of the Northwest. “Whatever happens to that salmon is going to happen to us. If we can’t protect the salmon and its habitat, we can’t protect ourselves from the same things that are driving the salmon toward extinction.”