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Fish-Buying Public Flocks to Tribal Sales,
But at What Price?

Linda Ashton/Associated Press, Post Register - September 9, 1999

RICHLAND, Wash. - By the time Butch Lumley pulled into the Columbia Point marina, he had acquired a small caravan of salmon buyers and there were several others waiting for him in the parking lot.

He was carrying 1,500 pounds of chinooks in a huge cooler in the bed of his pickup. The biggest salmon weighed 33 pounds, dressed out, and was as long as a first-grader is tall.

In just over an hour Saturday, Lumley estimated he sold 1,000 pounds of fresh-caught salmon. He plans to do it again this weekend at one of a dozen sale sites between the Bonneville Dam and Columbia Point.

Lumley, a member of the Yakama Nation, is one of 200 to 300 Indian fishermen participating in the 2- to 3-week salmon season, negotiated annually among the National Marine Fisheries Service, the states of Washington and Oregon and four Columbia River tribes.

It's a controversial catch in these days of federally ordered salmon protection, talk of breaching dams and highly coveted water rights.

But for many Indians, it's the continuation of a spiritual and economic tradition that dates back to a time before the arrival of white settlers, a time when the Columbia River near The Dalles, Ore., was a regional tribal trading center.

"This is a traditional way of making a living, one a lot of tribal fishers take seriously as far as the cultural aspects," says Jon Matthews, the salmon marketing project leader for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The fish commission - made up of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes - is promoting the catch with modern-day sales techniques, including brochures and a hotline advertising "Columbia River Indian-caught salmon: Taste the tradition."

Last week, tribal fishermen hauled in 17,000 chinook and 1,500 steelhead from their hoopnets and gillnets.

"What's the biggest one you've got?" Deanne St. George asks Lumley.

He pulls the giant chinook from the cooler, cuts off its head and suspends the fish from a hook on a rusty hand-held scale.

"I love salmon. This is a great buy," says St. George, who lives in West Richland. "I'll have meals for a whole year."

She paid $2.50 a pound for extra trimming, but the going rate is $2 a pound.

Salmon in the Northwest don't really come that cheap, says Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, a Portland, Ore.-based coalition of industrial, commercial and other non-tribal river users.

"First off, in no way do we take any kind of opposition to or express concern about the tribes' rights to catch salmon - from the 1855 Treaty perspective, and from the perspective of the residents of the Northwest and their desire to meet the treaty requirements," he says.

"The problem we have is, this is not a ceremonial or subsistence fishery. This is a commercial fishery."

The Columbia River Alliance would like to see an end to gillnet fishing in the river because it is not selective, with some compensation to the tribes until fish runs are restored. Gillnets don't distinguish between wild endangered stocks and healthy runs, Lovelin says.

His group calculates the direct and indirect costs of protecting one fish from birth to spawn out under the Endangered Species Act at about $200,000.

"Selling it at $2 a pound is clearly outrageous from an economic perspective," Lovelin says. "There really ought to be a better way."

But the Yakama Nation says the effect on endangered fish is incidental - the majority of salmon taken are from the wild healthy run out of the Hanford Reach or are hatchery fish.

While official estimates forecast 1,600 threatened Snake River fall chinook trying to make their way from the mouth of the Columbia upriver this season, Lovelin says only about 500 will get as far as Lewiston, Idaho.

"It kind of makes for a travesty of the whole Endangered Species Act," he says.

The incidental take through gillnets is not the crucial issue in salmon survival, says Carol Craig, fisheries manager for the Yakama Nation.

"Fish passage is the problem," she says. "I wish they would take their heads out of the sand."

Related Stories:
Fishing Compact Weighs Fall Chinook Impacts - Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/17/99

Linda Ashton / Associated Press
Fish-Buying Public Flocks to Tribal Sales, But at What Price?
Post-Register - September 9, 1999

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