By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Why have salmon been pouring back into the Columbia River in record numbers recently while returns to the Washington coast and Puget Sound continue to drop? One big reason is that for the past decade someone in a position of authority has been in charge of protecting and restoring Columbia River salmon.
That person has been U.S. District Court Judge James Redden. Three times during the past 10 years he has rejected plans to operate hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin that would have jeopardized salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. He ordered more water spilled over the dams to aid fish passage, even though that meant less water to generate power. He has also insisted on specific habitat improvements to aid in the recovery of salmon. Redden recently stepped down from the case, but has been replaced by federal court Judge Michael Simon.
That kind of attention and bold, targeted actions are exactly what we need to turn around salmon recovery in western Washington. Salmon recovery is failing because federal and state governments allow salmon habitat to be destroyed faster than it can be restored. This trend shows no sign of improvement despite drastic harvest reductions, careful use of hatcheries and extensive habitat restoration projects.
The ongoing loss of the salmon resource affects entire tribal communities in western Washington. Salmon is one of our most important traditional foods and a foundation of our cultures. Every year we try to set aside salmon to feed our families in the winter and to put fish on the table for ceremonies and funerals, but every year it is becoming more difficult. As the salmon disappear, our treaty-reserved harvest rights are threatened more every day.
That is why our late chairman, Billy Frank Jr., and other tribal leaders created the Treaty Rights at Risk initiative three and a half years ago and took it to the White House. Our goal is to have the protection of treaty-reserved rights institutionalized in the federal government through the White House Council on Native American Affairs. President Obama created the council nearly two years ago. Addressing tribal natural resources concerns was one of five main foundations of the council, but the Council has yet to address this charge. As President Obama prepares to leave the White House in 2017, our need becomes greater every day.
The failure of salmon recovery in western Washington is the failure of the federal government to meet its trust responsibility to protect salmon and the treaty-reserved rights of tribes. Treaty Rights at Risk calls for the federal government to assume control and responsibility for a more coordinated salmon recovery effort in western Washington. But so far, the federal government’s lack of progress has been disappointing. There has been plenty of discussion, but little action to reverse the negative trend in the condition of salmon habitat in this region. That needs to change.
We shouldn’t need a federal court judge to provide the proper attention, protection and targeted actions to restore salmon. We would prefer to work together with our state and federal co-managers through the White House Council on Native American Affairs. Together, we could take effective action to recover salmon runs.
We have already developed recovery plans and identified barriers to salmon recovery in western Washington’s watersheds. Now we need a commitment from the White House to tackle the most pressing obstacles in each watershed and provide the leadership necessary to put those salmon recovery plans into action.
If salmon are to be in the future of this region we must act now before it is too late.