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The Fish Wars:

Examine the Evidence


The Boldt Decision was a pivotal victory for Native Nations in the struggle for treaty fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest. Judge Boldt not only ruled that treaty tribes are entitled to half of the harvestable catch, he also stipulated an equal comanagement relationship between the treaty tribes and the state of Washington to restore and protect salmon habitat. After the United States Supreme Court upheld the Boldt Decision in 1979, state and tribal governments struggled to define the comanagement relationship and each party's legal obligations. What did comanagement mean? Who was responsible for what? The uncertainty raises the question, "Were the Fish Wars resolved?"

The state of Washington had difficulty accepting the validity and success of traditional Native knowledge of fisheries management.

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"Now the tribes are finally being acknowledged as comanagers of the fisheries resources. I had a lot of sports fishermen come directly up to me. And they put out their hand and they said, 'Would you please tell the Yakama Nation thank you? Because we know if it wasn't for their tribe, there'd still be no fish in that river.'"
Carol Craig (Yakama), NMAI Interview, August 2016

Attitudes were slow to change, until sports fishers saw the return of salmon in Washington State's waters.

"Boldt's ruling, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court , did more than affirm Indian fishing rights. It upheld treaties as being supreme over state law, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. It established treaty tribes as co-managers of the salmon fishery. And, as Muckleshoot Tribe attorney Alan Stay said, 'It spawned other actions designed to protect salmon—because if there is no salmon fishery , then the treaty is violated."

Richard Walker, "Boldt Revisited," The News Tribune, February 12, 2014.

It is not common knowledge that the treaties the United States enters into with any nation are constitutionally the "supreme law of the land."

The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) is made up of Yakama , Warm Springs , Umatilla , and Nez Pierce tribes.

CRITFC's mission is "to ensure a unified voice in the overall management of the fishery resources, and as managers, to protect reserved treaty rights through the exercise of the inherent sovereign powers of the tribes."

Seal of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), courtesy of Jeremy Five Crows.

NWIFC is an organization that provides support to twenty treaty tribes in western Washington. Nations within the NWIFC work together to effectively manage and preserve salmon populations.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
"It's a struggle to deal with Washington Department of Fishery. They still are processing our treaty to death."
Richard Solomon ( Lummi ), NMAI Interview, July 2016

Decades after the Boldt Decision, the state and tribes continue to battle in courts to define treaty rights.

In the forty years since the Boldt Decision, tribes have grown in population, influence, and economy.

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"A couple times a week, we go catch fish . . . in the Columbia River and we bring them up here and we distribute them to tribal elders so they can actually have salmon again. And for many of them, they haven't had salmon for twenty years."
- Michael Marchand ( Colville ), NMAI Interview, August 2016

Salmon People cease to exist without salmon. To witness the return is spiritually invigorating.

"Despite massive harvest reductions, strategic use of hatcheries , and a huge financial investment in habitat restoration efforts over the past 40 years, the State of Our Watersheds report shows that we are failing to turn the tide on salmon recovery."

"2012 State of Our Watersheds Report," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Olympia, WA

Every year, treaty tribes in western Washington publish a comprehensive report that outlines the quality of salmon habitats across the region.

"I regard Boldt as something more than a fishing-rights case. It is an Indian survival case. It is a case that gave the tribes the standing—the power—to sit down at the table with other governments as equals."
Al Ziontz, attorney, roundtable discussion on the Boldt Decision at Northwest Indian College, July 2005

Critical to the Boldt Decision was the ruling that treaty tribes were comanagers of salmon, along with state and federal governments.

Tulalip youth drum during the First Salmon Ceremony.

2016 State of Our Watersheds Report: Snohomish River Basin, Tulalip Tribes,
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"Our water boundaries have shrunk to just a tiny little box . We... Makah fishermen... fished from California into the Bering Sea. And today we're just in the box. And that's not who we are. And it creates a lot of tension among the fishermen. But despite the tension, they're still able to work on the water in a traditional way where everybody gets a fair shot and has a chance to catch their share."
Greg Colfax (Makah), NMAI Interview, July 2016

When Boldt ruled that treaties guaranteed fifty percent of the fishing harvest to Indian fishers, including off reservation fishing, he looked to historical maps to determine these usual and accustomed boundaries. Reaching consensus from these maps is a challenge. For instance, the Makah are one of several Native Nations who may have had ancestral hunting and fishing grounds reduced as a result of the Boldt Decision.

"The Boldt Decision came down and all of a sudden people said, 'I am going fishing,' and they did. Pretty soon another dash of cold water comes down, and that dash of cold water was that they ran out of fish."
Wallace Heath, Lummi Aquaculture Project, from roundtable discussion on the Boldt Decision at Northwest Indian College, July 2005

Indians and non-Indians alike felt the sting of salmon depletion; the Boldt Decision did not restore salmon at the pounding of a gavel. Salmon runs are still a fraction of what they used to be.

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