The State of Washington has a duty to the treaty Indian tribes who have always inhabited this region.
That Duty is to not allow salmon habitat to be degraded to the point that salmon are no longer available for harvest by the tribes, who gave up nearly all of the land in what is now western Washington under treaties with the United States government. Through those treaties, the tribes reserved certain rights that were the most important for them. Foremost was the right to continue fishing in all of their traditional fishing areas. The tribes reserved this right because the salmon was the very basis of their culture.
Little has changed from the tribal perspective since the treaties were signed. Salmon remains the center of tribal culture today. Sadly, however, the fish that once sustained an entire region have all but disappeared. Over the past two decades, the treaty tribes have voluntarily reduced their overall salmon harvests by 80-90 percent to protect weak wild salmon stocks.
Loss and degradation of salmon spawning and rearing habitat has been – and continues to be – the main reason for the salmon’s decline. But so far, the main response to the salmon crisis has been to reduce harvest. Meanwhile, wild salmon and their habitat, continue to disappear.
In 1997, the State of Washington issued a report which stated that blockage of a salmon passage by road culverts is “one of the most recurrent and correctable obstacles to healthy salmonid populations in Washington.” The report by the Washington Department of Transportation and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife noted that:
- A minimum of 400 culverts under state roads need to be fixed to provide salmon passage.
- Of that total, 177 culverts block about 250 miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat.
- If those 177 culverts were repaired and maintained, 200,000 more adult wild salmon would be produced annually.
- Fixing the culverts would have an economical benefit – from commercial and sport fishing revenues and other sources – far exceeding the repair costs.
The report concludes by estimating that fixing the barrier culverts will take between20 and 100 years, depending on the level of funding that state government dedicates to the project.
What will happen to the salmon – and the tribes’ treaty-reserved fishing rights – in 20 to 100 years? Already, several species of salmon in western Washington have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. More listings are likely. Habitat loss and degradation will not stop, but will only increase as the Puget Sound region continues to grow.
It is likely that there will be only a few salmon – or perhaps none – for the tribes to harvest in 20 to 100 years. As a result, the tribes’ treaty-reserved rights to harvest salmon will have been made meaningless because the State of Washington has failed to protect and restore salmon habitat.
Only after attempts to reach a negotiated settlement on repair and maintenance of fish-blocking culverts failed, did the tribes file suit against the State of Washington in federal court on Feb. 12. The tribes are simply asking that the State of Washington acknowledge its duty to the treaty tribes and do the right thing: Fix the culverts within five years instead of 20 to 100 years. The suit seeks only the repair and maintenance of fish-blocking culverts under state roads that affect salmon returning to the traditional fishing area of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington. The tribes are not seeking payment for past damages.
The federal government has joined the case on behalf of the tribes, and federal courts have consistently upheld the treaty-reserved rights of the tribes in western Washington. Earlier federal court rulings have clearly indicated that the tribes’ treaty-reserved right to harvest salmon includes the right to have habitat protected so that there are salmon available for harvest.
Contrary to what you might hear, tribes are not seeking veto power over all activities that might harm salmon. The court case does not mean that the tribes will stop working cooperatively with the State of Washington, environmental groups, industry or others. The tribes remain committed to participating in any meaningful effort to achieve salmon recovery.
Salmon recovery begins and ends with protecting and restoring habitat. Fixing these culverts alone will not save the salmon. It is, however, a simple and cost-effective step toward the goal of salmon recovery. If treaty rights can be used to reach that goal, it is to the benefit of everyone – Indian and non-Indian – who lives in the Puget Sound region.