Indian Treaty Fishing on the Columbia River
The Columbia River, once the greatest salmon and steelhead river in the world, by 1974 was dying the death of a thousand pecks. Progressive and ubiquitous habitat degredation by continuous development, from logging the watershed spawning streams, damming the major upriver and downriver corridors, pollution, as well as frank overfishing, had reduced it's once estimated 20 million fish yearly runs to a small, remnant, competitively pursued fraction of that number. Some specific river runs of certain species were frankly extinct, and others were threatened.
The Boldt Decision of '74, which reaffirmed Native American fishing rights as international treaties and specified the indians right to 50% of the yearly harvest (an interpretation of the treaty word "share") was widely viewed by the dominant white culture as the final blow that would result in total collapse. In fact, the opposite has happened. Subsequent federal court decisions and Endangered Species Act decisions affirmed the right of the Columbia River tribes to a VIABLE HARVESTABLE fishery, not simply safety from extinction, and placed the whole process under federal court order, admnistered by the federal district court judge. THAT reality created a completely different dynamic in mobilizing the complex myriad of federal agencies, relatively free at ground level from over-riding political meddling, into a top-to-bottom watershed effort to restore the runs. Decisions that would cost millions of dollars and be endlessly politically debated and tainted, in a "normal" process, were made at the stroke of a pen.
While the political howling and teeth gnashing, mostly around the possibility that the court might order removal of mainstream Snake River dams, swirled in the stratosphere, thousands of ground level projects were implemented. Perhaps the most significant decision, again at a stroke of a pen, demanded that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) increase the river flow duing the critical spring and summer months of upstream adult and downstream smoult migration by "spilling"(without power generation) an EXTRA 70K cubic feet/second of water. Debatable, controversial, and expensive to every northwestern electricity rate-payer, that decision alone, without the over-riding federal court jurisdiction, was probably politically un-reachable.
There is building evidence that the effort is working. The past 3 years have seen some of the largest runs of salmon and steelhead ever recorded (since recording became possible in 1937). Without the driving force of indian treaty obligations only a small fraction of the current effort to restore the runs would every have happened. White northwest culture could never have demanded, with court support and supervision, restoration of a vibrant commercial fishery. And, while the northwest sportsmen and commercial fishermen might only get 50% of the harvestable fish, 50% of a very big number is much better than 90% or even 100% of a very small number.
The tribal fisheries on the Columbia are highly controlled and accountable, probably much more so than even the sportsmen's harvest. The vast percentage of the indian take is through gillnetting on the mainstream river. But there are areas and sites at which the indians can "fish" with dip nets in the same process initially seen by Lewis and Clark from platforms erected at migration barriers that concentrate the fish. One such site is the "falls" on the Klickitat River (see the "Klickitat Gorge" in the river fishing venue section here), fished by members of the Yakama tribe.
Hoop nets are held and suspended in front of the falls itself where the jumping fish often fall directly into the net. Below the falls, differently designed hoops are manually swept through the resting-water pools. The fish being caught here are Fall (run) Chinook and Steelhead. The fish are sold commecially or used by the tribe for ceremonial and subsistence purposes.
The hoops at the jump site look daunting but, yes, a lot of fish get through. And, yes, it is OK to root for the fish.
The sequence of pictures will run as a slideshow once started.