Wednesday, June 22, 1994

Pacific Northwest Salmon in Crisis

by Terri C. Hansen
News from Indian Country
Bureau Chief/Pacific Northwest Bureau

Blame it on El Nino, warming ocean waters, hydroelectric dams, habitat destruction or even sea lions. But whatever the cause of dwindling salmon runs, the effect on Northwest Indian Nations can be summed up in one word: catastrophic.

"Certainly it is an economic crisis," says W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington Puget Sound Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. But just as important - if not more so - are the spiritual and cultural aspects, he believes. Salmon are at the heart of Northwest Indian culture; their diet, commerce, ceremonies and spirituality. Salmon are not just a way of life. They are life. And they are fast becoming scarce.

Salmon runs plunged from 16 million less than half a century ago to just two million today. 106 stocks of wild Pacific salmon are extinct, according to the American Fisheries Society. Over 200 more are in peril. This year's projections for all coho and chinook salmon runs are worse than last year's all-time low.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission represents nineteen Western Washington tribes with treaty fishing rights. Their expected announcement that the tribes would drastically reduce their customary salmon harvest this year came on March 31. More jolting, especially in terms of cultural impact, was their announcement that, in hopes of saving disappearing coho salmon runs, the tribes would cease all coho salmon fishing this year."

It was a difficult choice for the tribal leadership to make," says Allen, who as chairman of a treaty fishing tribe participated in the decision-making process. "Some tribes lean more heavily on certain salmon species than others," he says. "But we all rely on the coho."

The coho are in the worst trouble. Washington's Puget Sound coho runs are projected to drop under the minimum levels needed to spawn the next generation. Coho, also known as silver salmon, spawn in coastal streams from northern California to Washington. After spending their first year in the streams they travel to the ocean, where they live for two years before returning home to their native stream to spawn. So few wild coho remain today many environmental groups want them protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Northwest Indian fishing alliances, the current crisis has been in the making for some time. El Nino tipped the scales by warming the oceans and reducing the availability of the nutrient-rich cool water, Steve Robinson of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission explains. Because they are released at the same stage and stay closer to shore, coho are especially vulnerable and have been hardest hit by poor ocean conditions, says the Washington Department of Fisheries.

In an unprecedented move, the federal agency responsible for setting non-tribal ocean fishing limits adopted a "zero option" plan to close ocean fishing for all salmon species this year. The Pacific Fishery Management Council's official announcement came April 8. Rules for non-tribal river and estuary fishing won't be set until later this month. Even with no ocean fishing season, the number of salmon returning to Columbia River hatcheries will probably be less than the number needed to sustain the runs. Few coho returned this year to spawn. The destruction of their natural habitat has been an issue of environmentalists and Indian fishers for nearly two decades. Northwest treaty fishing nations, long involved in efforts to save declining salmon stocks, have labored since the early 80s to have sensitive portions of Pacific Northwest national forests designated "wilderness," thus protecting fish habitat from the erosion and stream sedimentation associated with logging and uncontrolled grazing. (Cold water, essential to most species of salmon, disappears from streams when logging and grazing practices eliminate vegetation needed for shade. The sediment and mud produced by clearcutting destroys salmon spawning areas; silt suffocates their eggs.) Lower stream flows due to irrigation, dryer than usual temperatures and low rainfall have all contributed to less than ample water in the streams.

But, many agree, it is the hydroelectric dams that have played a major role in the salmon's decline. Since the 1930s, when the Columbia began the change from a "wild," free-flowing river to a series of slack-water reservoirs, dam turbines have diced millions of smolts not intercepted by mechanical bypass systems or spilled over dams. Young fish that do survive may spend weeks getting to the ocean, a trip that once took a few days. Timing is critical to their survival; salmon smolts, once they begin a biological body change allowing them to adjust to life in salt water, have only a short time to reach the ocean or they die. In spite of a 1980 directive to dam operators from Congress to give equal treatment to the fish, dams have continued to operate primarily to maximize power generation.

"Volts over smolts" was a phrase used in a newsletter published almost a decade ago by a frustrated Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. CRITFC represents four Columbia River treaty fishing nations; the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. Commission publications throughout the 80s and 90s describe tribal efforts to decrease salmon smolt mortality by increasing spillwater over nine Columbia River dams that stand between salmon smolt and the sea. But the agencies and utilities responsible for the massive system of dams and reservoirs used on the Columbia and Snake rivers objected, claiming the price tag of lost electrical generation would come at too high a cost. Tim Wapato, then executive director of CRITFC, said (referring to 1985 U.S.-Canada treaty negotiations), "It doesn't do much good to limit the ocean catch if the smolts can't get to the sea." It echoes like a tragic prophecy today.

Earlier this year, in spite of well documented disappearing salmon runs and the recommendations of their own biologists, government agencies responsible for Columbia River Basin dam operations put forward a "business as usual" salmon recovery plan, declaring that "explanations for declining salmon stocks are elusive." CRITFC rejected the five-year plan, saying that it was "scientifically flawed," "contradictory to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," and failed to adequately protect the declining salmon. Along with the states of Oregon and Alaska, CRITFC joined a lawsuit filed by Idaho in 1993 challenging the plan as inadequate.

On March 18, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh heard arguments in the case in Boise, Idaho. Marsh ruled the plan flawed because it relied too much on the "status quo ... when the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul." He ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Bureau of Reclamation to prepare a new plan within 60 days. Bill Yallup, a tribal council member of the Yakama Indian Nation, is on the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. In a recent Associated Press article he analogized, "To deal only with harvest is like painting the outside of a house while the foundation is crumbling." Without intervention, Yallup says we will soon have no salmon left to harvest or -- more importantly -- to reproduce.

Copyright © 1994 Terri Crawford Hansen
Ethnic News Watch -- SoftLine Information, Inc., Stamford, CT