Indian Tribes Reap a Windfall
by Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press
CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. -- The way Tony Gardee sees it, the Columbia River gives, and the Columbia River takes away.
This week it's giving. For the first time in 38 years, American Indian tribes on the river have elected to sell a bountiful crop of fresh-caught summer chinook, a salmon that usually weighs 20-30 pounds.
At $2 a pound, many of the fish sell out in an hour or so from the ice chests fishers bring to parking lots and boat landings off Interstate 84, along 150 miles of the Oregon side of the river.
The river's three-day season ends Wednesday evening. Sales to non-Indians can continue beyond that if the fish were caught during the brief commercial season.
Wads of bills and large plastic bags of fish quickly change hands.
"I'll take two; I don't care what they weigh," one buyer offered.
Some 120,000 summer chinook are expected to come upriver. The tribes have three days to catch as many as 6,000 of them to sell or keep for their own use.
It's the second-highest return since 1960. As recently as the mid-1990s the return was at only about 15,000. While fisheries specialists say the increase is encouraging, they are not yet declaring the run recovered.
In 2001, the tribes conducted a commercial spring chinook harvest on the river, the first time in 23 years. The commercial catch has since been offered in 2002 and this year. But while the money flowed on the riverbank this week, there is a sense of bitterness as well over fishing restrictions.
Simon Sampson, of Toppenish, Wash., and other tribal fishers said Tuesday that Indians covered by 1855 treaties should be allowed to fish without restrictions.
"This is the tail-end of the run," Sampson said. "Most of the fish already have passed.... We know when there's abuse of the salmon runs, and we don't do it."
Treaty rights enable members of the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Yakama, and Umatilla tribes to fish with hook and line for their own consumption at any time. But sales to non-Indians are strictly controlled, as is gillnetting.
Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said most salmon spawn in October, and the spring and summer chinook linger in the river. They are rich in fat and oil and are highly desirable. He said most summer chinook are hatchery fish and not endangered.
He said the unusually large return is due to several factors including improved habitat, the nutrient level of the water, hatchery operations, and harvest management.
"But the ocean deserves the biggest pat on the back," he said.
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