Puget Sound:
Estuary Restoration Case Study


"You know, it's a really great feeling to have the freedom to go back on the river to fish, because that's our livelihood, the salmon."

David Sohappy (Yakama), 1989

American Indians have lived and fished along coastal and inland Northwest waters for thousands of years. In the 1850s, Indian Nations of the Pacific Northwest signed treaties with the United States government, ceding millions of acres of land. In exchange, the tribes retained reservation lands and the rights to fish and hunt in their "usual and accustomed places", including places outside reservation boundaries.

Today, Native Nations of the Pacific Northwest are leaders in the protection and preservation of salmon. Examine these case studies and consider the actions Native Nations take to restore salmon and, in turn, strengthen their cultures.


The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

The Northwest Indian Fishing Commission was formed after the 1974 U.S. v. Washington court case reaffirmed American Indian treaty fishing rights. It is made up of twenty Native Nations. Member nations work both independently and cooperatively to lead efforts that restore habitats and recover salmon.

Exercising a right reserved in treaties requires an existence of fish. If the fish are absent, the right to fish and hunt in usual and accustomed places cannot be fulfilled.

Case Study Initiative: Skokomish Estuary Restoration

Industry and commercial farming have a devastating impact on salmon habitat. This has been the case for the Chinook and Chum salmon populations in the Skokomish River. It was common practice in the Puget Sound during the mid-twentieth century to build dikes to create new farmland or residential space. Once a dike is constructed, water on one side of the barrier is drained. In the Puget Sound, dikes destroyed estuaries—places where a river's current meets the ocean's tide. Juvenile salmon rely on estuaries to feed, grow, and adjust to the salt water before heading into the ocean.

In 2005, the Skokomish Indian Tribe began a three-phase estuary restoration project. As a result of the tribe's persistence, knowledge, and determination, salmon are returning and Skokomish cultural values and traditions can thrive.

"It's hard to tell our fishermen that they can't fish. If we didn't truly believe we could rebuild these salmon runs, we wouldn't be working as hard as we do. It's difficult to recover weak stocks [salmon] without recovering their habitat at the same time. We are doing a lot of habitat work, as much as we can. We are also monitoring these projects for their benefits to the salmon.'

Lorraine Loomis ( Swinomish ), NWIFC chair
Salmon require a healthy habitat to survive. This means we must pay attention to everything that affects the quality of water in which salmon live during their life cycle, including the surrounding lands, plants, animals, and human factors like roads and buildings.
Discussion Question

Speculate on what components besides water are parts of salmon habitat.

How might the presence or absence of trees affect salmon habitat?

Lisa Belleveau, habitat biologist for the Skokomish Tribe, counts and measures the types of vegetation in the newly restored Skokomish Estuary . The Skokomish Tribe continues to monitor the changes in the Skokomish Estuary as it is restored to its natural state after several decades of human impact. The tribe's habitat department annually observes the amount and types of native plants returning to the estuary.

Photographs courtesy of Tiffany Royal, information and education officer, Strait/Hood Canal Region.

The Skokomish Indian Tribe led a multimillion-dollar estuary restoration project. The project—funded by grants awarded to the Skokomish Nation—was executed in three carefully planned phases:

Phase 1: Remove or modify obstacles to salmon passage, such as dikes , berms , and culverts . Reintroduce native species and vegetation important to juvenile salmon rearing habitats.

Phase 2: Expand on efforts from Phase 1 and continue removing obstacles. Restore wetlands and shellfish habitats and improve overall water quality.

Phase 3: Continue to improve salt-marsh habitat and reconnect important tidal channels .


"Opening the salt marsh and floodplain to the river and tide cycles is key to restoring the estuary and its habitat."

Alex Gouley, Skokomish habitat program manager

From Phase Three alone, fifty-six acres are open to fish passage, which benefits endangered Puget Sound Chinook , Hood Canal summer chum , coho , and pink salmon. Waterfowl, shellfish, and native vegetation have all increased as a result of the innovation and dedication of the Skokomish Nation.

Within the first year of the project, staff found twenty fish species, including Chinook, chum, and Coho salmon, in areas where no fish had been seen before. As the estuary is restored, the tribe uses it as a living classroom. Students from area schools visit the estuary annually for outdoor science programs.

"It's the tribes that are putting the fish back in the waters. It's our people doing that to make sure our livelihood will carry on, that our children will have this opportunity to get into a boat and go fishing so they can eat what they need."

Nancy Shippentower (Puyallup), NMAI Interview, July 2016.
Nancy Shippentower ( Puyallup) learned at an early age that salmon are the essence of Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest. For those cultures to survive, so must the salmon.
Discussion Question
How would you describe the connection between salmon and the Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest?
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