We are losing the battle for salmon recovery in western Washington because salmon habitat is being destroyed faster than it can be restored. Despite massive cuts in harvest, careful use of hatcheries and a huge financial investment in restoration during the past four decades, salmon continue to decline along with their habitat. As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.
That’s why we are asking the federal government to come to align its agencies and programs, and lead a more coordinated salmon recovery effort. We want the United States to take charge of salmon recovery because it has the obligation and authority to ensure both salmon recovery and protection of tribal treaty rights. That responsibility is alive today, just like the treaties.
We held up our end of the bargain when we ceded most of the land in western Washington to the U.S. government through the treaties of 1854-55. In those treaties, we retained certain rights for ourselves, such as the right to harvest salmon in our traditional fishing places as we have always done. But those rights are meaningless if the salmon disappear. Already some of our tribes have lost even their most basic ceremonial and subsistence fisheries, the cornerstone of tribal life.
We began our effort to get the federal government to take charge of salmon recovery when we traveled last summer to Washington, D.C., to meet with the White House. Follow-up meetings with federal leadership have been encouraging. Attention is being focused on increased enforcement of existing habitat protection laws, protecting instream flows for salmon, and ensuring that federal actions are helping to meet salmon recovery needs and goals.
Too often, federal actions and federally funded state programs don’t contribute to salmon recovery, and sometimes even make it more difficult. A recent lawsuit filed by environmental groups over floodplain management in western Washington provides a good example.
The environmental groups want the U.S. government to stop issuing flood insurance in some parts of Puget Sound until floodplain management plans are changed to reflect the needs not only of developers, but of endangered salmon and orcas as well. We couldn’t agree more.
Floodplains are low-lying areas that allow rivers to spread out during high flows. They help provide important salmon habitat for migration, rearing and spawning. Dikes, overdevelopment and other floodplain impacts restrict the ability of that habitat to support salmon, and can lead to more costly damage when flooding occurs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Floodplain management that is good for flood control can also be good for salmon habitat.
Up until now, the federal government’s main response to declining salmon runs has been to restrict harvest. That’s a recipe for failure. Habitat must be held to the same standard as harvest if we are going to recover salmon.
Before tribes can go fishing, we are required to show that our fisheries will contribute to salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act. Those who damage or destroy habitat must be held to the same standard. No amount of fishery restrictions can restore salmon unless they have enough good spawning and rearing habitat.
We believe that salmon recovery must take place at the watershed level because that’s where salmon begin and end their lives. We already have developed recovery plans and identified barriers to salmon recovery for most watersheds in western Washington. Those plans must be implemented and those barriers fixed, and it needs to happen soon.
One thing is clear. By every measuring stick we use, salmon habitat continues to disappear at an alarming rate, and that trend shows no signs of improvement.
What we have been doing isn’t working. If we are going to succeed with salmon recovery, the federal government must use its authority to honor our treaties and put us all back on the path to salmon recovery.
Billy Frank, Jr. is the chairman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.