Questions and Answers on tribal salmon fisheries

Are tribal harvests responsible for dwindling salmon runs?

Loss and degradation of habitat is the primary reason salmon have declined and continue to stay at low numbers, despite efforts to restrict harvest. Instead of dealing with the real factors leading to the decline of salmon, much focus has been put on restricting fisheries.

There is no difference between a salmon that has been harvested and one that fails to survive because of habitat loss and degradation. Both are dead.

All salmon fisheries, including tribal fisheries, have declined sharply in recent decades to protect weak wild salmon runs. Many tribal fisheries have declined up to 80 percent, some have disappeared all together. Even the most severe fisheries restrictions, such as allowing no fisheries, have failed to restore wild salmon runs because habitat degradation is occurring faster than we can reduce or eliminate fisheries. Even if we were to end all fishing everywhere today, some runs would still become extinct simply because their habitat has been destroyed or degraded to the point that it can no longer sustain them.

If salmon are threatened, why do the tribes net?

It is important to realize that not all salmon species are on the brink of extinction. Many stocks are quite healthy and can support harvest. Also, many of the salmon that tribes depend on for harvest come from hatcheries. Every year, tribes release around 40 million salmon from hatcheries that contribute to sport, commercial and tribal fisheries.

Salmon have sustained tribes for thousands of years. Indian tribes gave up most of what is now western Washington for the continued right to fish, to be able to sustain themselves the way they always have. Tribes depend on salmon spiritually, culturally and economically, and no group is more concerned with protecting and recovering salmon.

How can fish return to spawning grounds with nets in the river?

Tribes protect returning runs of weak wild stocks by operating their fisheries with significant restrictions on time and place, while allowing harvest opportunities on healthy stocks.

The tribes and state each get a 50 percent share of the harvestable number of salmon available. Tribal fisheries are based on sound science that puts a premium on getting enough fish back to the spawning grounds.

How do gillnets work?

In addition to other nets like beach seines, many tribal fisheries are conducted using gillnets. This sort of net, which entraps a salmon by its gills, is an effective way to catch salmon.

Tribes deploy gillnets only during fisheries in which the targeted species is practically the only fish in the area. By changing mesh sizes, tribal fishers can avoid ensnaring non-targeted species. Tribes often require fishermen to limit the size of their nets to allow a portion of the fish to swim past.

What is the difference between sport and tribal commercial fisheries?

Tribes are forced by treaty to fish in particular areas. Because they can’t move their fisheries to focus on certain healthy runs, they bear an unequal burden in the effort to protect weak wild stocks. If returns are low to a particular tribe’s usual and accustomed area, that tribe won’t fish. Sport fishermen, however, are allowed to fish throughout the region, focusing their efforts on healthy runs.

Many treaty tribes fish in “terminal areas” that typically don’t have mixed stocks of weak and strong populations returning at the same time.

How are tribal fisheries managed and enforced?

Each treaty Indian tribe in western Washington maintains a monitoring staff that samples salmon that are caught in fisheries. Every salmon is also reported to the tribe on a fish ticket. That catch data is compiled and shared on a same-day basis with the state co-managers. Compared to sport catches, which are estimated based on catch record cards reported months later by individual fishermen, tribal fisheries report their catches within days.

A responsible treaty fishery is important to good salmon management and to the spirit of tribal fishing. Law enforcement is a part of that. If a tribal enforcement officer finds a tribal fisherman fishing in violation of tribal regulations, he is obligated to issue a citation or warning. If a citation is issued, the case is referred to tribal court. Fishermen found in violation of tribal regulations are subject to fines and/or loss of fishing privileges. Uniformed tribal fisheries officers on Washington rivers provide a much-needed enforcement presence, particularly with a decrease in state enforcement due to budget shortfalls. On many rivers, tribal enforcement officers outnumber state officers.