News from the Front #44:  

States and Feds Handing Spring Chinook Run to Tribes, Leaving Only Crumbs for Sportsmen

If you examine the history of successful game restoration in North America, each and every effort was led by sportsmen, not by environmentalists. So long as the principal value of Pacific salmon is to provide slogans for campaigns to turn back the Northwest regional clock to the time of Lewis and Clark, salmon and steelhead will be seen by most voters as more symbolic than real. And without a united front of sportsmen to spearhead a recovery plan, Pacific salmon and steelhead will remain a sideshow in a multi-ring circus run by environmental extremists.   

        George Reiger, "Conservation:  Why Pacific Salmon Are in Trouble", Field & Stream, January 2001

This spring, a large run of spring chinook is returning.  No one really counted the runs until they started counting fish at Bonneville Dam in 1938, and this run may be the biggest one ever counted.  If Government were really out to protect "endangered" salmon, it would follow the law and let these fish return upstream to spawn, where they might re-seed the Columbia Basin for the future.

But Government doesn't care about protecting the salmon.  Indeed, Government cares so little about protecting the salmon that it does not even pretend to comply with the laws regulating salmon harvest.  For example, gillnets are in the lower Columbia River killing salmon (and have been there since at least February 13th), even though the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has yet to issue a biological opinion specifically authorizing the harvest.  Imagine logging companies getting away with that.  

The returning salmon in February consist in part of "threatened" Willamette spring chinook, a favorite of Oregon sportsfishermen.  In March, the upriver spring chinook, including several "threatened" or "endangered" runs, begin to return.  All the spring chinook are especially prized by sportsfishermen because they are more likely to bite on a hook than many other runs of salmon and steelhead.   

Fish and wildlife management has devolved from scientific management guided by law to a series of political deals.  One of the most egregious ones concerns the disposition of this year's "endangered" spring chinook run.  In Orwellian fashion, the deal was announced in a recent press release issued by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as:  "Tribes, states reach multi-year salmon protection and rebuilding accord for Columbia, Snake rivers".  This is salmon-speak for an announcement of a new, higher harvest rate on returning endangered salmon.

Under the accord, the total reported harvest of "endangered" salmon may rise as high as 17% in an exceptional year; based on this year's forecast run, the total take would be 15%.  Since perhaps half the catch is unreported -- some allege the true number is even higher -- this means that roughly 30% of the fish will be killed.  These are the very fish for which BPA's ratepayers paid $20 million a fish in flow augmentation costs, farmers idled their fields and orchards, and citizens throughout the Northwest watched their property values erode as ever-more-draconian salmon restrictions creep into law.

The worst part of the deal isn't the harvest rate, which might or might not be sustainable, if enforced, in a good year.  The worst part is that the Tribes are set to get 13% of the 15%, leaving non-Tribal gillnetters with 1.5% and sportsmen with just 0.5%.  Why do I say "worst part of the deal"?  Because so long as Northwest sportsfishermen are given short shrift in salmon allocations, they won't have enough interest in salmon recovery to fight against the environmental extremists.

Why don't Oregon and Washington stand up for their non-Tribal citizens?  For starters, their government agencies are in the hands of environmental extremists, but I'm sure they would blame the famous "Stevens Treaties", in which the United States promised that the Tribes would have the exclusive right to catch salmon on their reservations, and the right to fish "in common with" the white settlers off the reservations.  Back in 1979, a 6-3 majority on the United States Supreme Court decided in United States v. State of Washington  that this language really meant that the Tribes were entitled to roughly half the fish.  This is also called the Boldt decision, after the judge hand-picked by President Nixon to sit on the case.  Judge Boldt produced judicial rulings so palpably arbitrary that they triggered massive resistance on the part of the State of Washington. The Washington Supreme Court tried to explain that equal protection of laws required that Indians and non-Indians get the equal rights to fish -- outside the reservations -- but the United States Supreme Court declared that Tribes must get special rights whenever the Federal government wants to grant them.

According to that Supreme Court decision, the ratio of sportfishermen to Tribal fishermen was roughly 350 to 1, based on licenses issued, so giving the Tribes half the fish was a significant preference, to say to the least.  Giving the Tribes 13/15ths of the spring chinook is even worse -- though no one seems to have documented the Tribal share of all salmon and steelhead runs, which is probably lower.  Roughly speaking, it looks like 99.7% of the fishermen -- the sportsfishermen -- get only 3.3% of the fish.  The special rights for Tribes are reminiscent of the 100 to 1 anti-white preferences now routine in college admissions.  

Neither the Boldt decision nor the Stevens Treaties need be interpreted in this way.  The United States Supreme Court declared that the special right for Tribes it invented could be modified in light of changing circumstances:  "Indian treaty rights to a natural resource that once was thoroughly and exclusively exploited by the Indians secures so much as, but not more than, is necessary to provide the Indians with a livelihood -- that is to say, a moderate living."  Oregon and Washington ought to think about just how many fish they really need to cede to the Tribes to assure a "moderate living".  

A couple of years ago, some of the Tribes decided that "fish" meant clams and oysters, and decided they wanted half of the shellfish too. So the shoreline property owners decided to see just how much money the Tribes were making from casinos, because they suspected that there was no need to give the Tribes half the shellfish in order to assure a "moderate living".  Indeed, they put evidence into court that when casino revenues were taken into account, Tribal members tended to have a higher per capita income than white residents of the counties in which they lived together.

But the property owners lost in court, because the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declared that:

"the Tribes lag significantly behind other residents of the State of Washington in their overall standard of living. For example, approximately one in three Tribal members live below the poverty level; Indians in the State of Washington endure health circumstances characterized by the State as "very poor;" tribal members have per capita incomes that are less than one-half the per capita income of non-tribal residents of the State; and tribal members suffer from unemployment rates at least three times greater than that of all non-tribal residents of the State of Washington." 

Thus a right to fish "in common" is transmogrified into a right to take a grossly disproportionate share of public resources because of social needs.  It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would affirm this reasoning, particularly if the States of Oregon and Washington challenged it.

There are surely non-economic benefits to preserving Native American culture that outweigh economic efficiency, and perhaps Tribal members should be free to choose the kinds of governments that serve their interests, even if those choices damage the health and welfare of Tribal members.  But the dismal economic performance of some Tribes is an inevitable byproduct of living under Third-World-style governments -- plus the ill effects of federal programs that promote a cycle of dependency and decay.  Sportsfishermen shouldn't have to watch the river fill up with Tribal gillnets while they can't go fishing, just because enormous casino profits don't seem to trickle down and the federal government grossly mismanages its Tribal programs

Once upon a time, the sportsfishing interests took on the Tribes for a larger share of the harvest.  Unfortunately for the sportsfishermen, their organizations were taken over years ago by environmentalists.  These "Greens" barred challenges to the Tribes as politically-incorrect and made an unholy alliance with commercial fishing interests.  Chuck Voss, who brought Trout Unlimited to the Pacific Northwest as their Western Director before the Boldt decision, says "the sportsmen fought hard with money, time and effort, but obviously lost.  The sportfishermen, and in particular, Trout Unlimited, have become Green-nosed wimps who have joined in celebration of the Native American fisheries and given  away the spring chinook.  It's a disgrace."  As a non-Tribal sportsfisherman who would like a better chance to catch my own spring chinook, I have to agree.

James Buchal, March 5, 2001

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what's going on, the quicker we'll have more fish in the rivers.

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