By Billy Frank, Jr, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chairman
Winter snows are melting up in the mountains and soon the only white stuff we’ll see floating in the air will be cottonwood fluff, a sign that the salmon are beginning to return and a reminder that it is time to celebrate the fish that sustains us as a people.
In gatherings large and small, tribes throughout western Washington will celebrate First Salmon ceremonies this spring and summer to welcome home the salmon.
It is an honor for a tribal fisherman to be asked to harvest the First Salmon, a scout for the Salmon People who live in a village under the sea. With drumming and singing the First Salmon is welcomed and shared. The First Salmon’s bones are then returned to the water to allow his spirit to go home. If the First Salmon was shown proper respect, he will tell the Salmon People how well he was treated, and lead them back to the tribe’s fishing area for harvest.
The return of the salmon means tribal fishermen will be returning to the water as well. As part of the First Salmon Ceremony, many tribes also include a Blessing of the Fleet for protection of tribal fishermen and their boats.
But it is getting harder every year to put our tribal fishermen on the water. While careful harvest management by the tribal and state co-managers is making a strong contribution to the recovery of wild salmon, the keys to rebuilding those runs have always been to protect and restore salmon habitat.
Yet day after day we see salmon habitat being lost and damaged, and little being done to stop or fix it. Our declining salmon populations and resulting lost fishing opportunity are mirrors that reflect the increasingly shrinking quality and quantity of salmon habitat in our region. Conservative fisheries are effective only when they go hand-in-hand with equally strong efforts to protect and restore salmon habitat.
The lack of action on protecting and restoring habitat has gotten to the point that we can no longer make up for declining salmon runs simply by reducing harvest. Those days are gone. Even if we stopped all salmon fishing everywhere in western Washington, most weak wild salmon stocks would still never recover. There simply isn’t enough good quality habitat to support them.
But despite everything that’s thrown against them – dams, pollution, predators and much more – the salmon never stop trying to make it home. We can’t stop either. We all need to work harder to make sure the salmon has a good home when he returns.
We don’t want to ever find ourselves contemplating a Last Salmon Ceremony.