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Save the Salmon, Tribal Leaders Beg

by Paul Shukovsky
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 2002

Northwest Indians threatened by low fish prices, 'chronic poor harvests'

LUMMI RESERVATION -- The sons and daughters of Northwest Indian families who have fished for thousands of years gathered yesterday to face the frightening possibility of a future without a subsistence fishery.

This "Gathering for Salmon" came in the wake of a failed 2001 salmon season that caused the Lummi Nation to declare itself a fisheries disaster area.

Yesterday, representatives from six Northwest tribes met at the Lummi reservation north of Bellingham to document the economic and social woes of fishing people who can fish no more.

In turn, tribal leaders rose, many sounding a call to save the salmon.

"We are the salmon people," said Phil Hamilton of the Muckleshoot Tribe in South King County. "For generations, the salmon has sustained our life. Now we must do what we can to sustain the life of the salmon."

For thousands of years, Northwest tribes had fished without diminishing the salmon runs. But when Europeans arrived, the population went into precipitous decline.

That decline can be blamed on overfishing; damage and destruction of salmon streams by forestry, farming and the creation of cities; dams that have walled off huge portions of rivers where salmon once bred; and the advent of genetically inferior hatchery-bred fish that have crowded out wild salmon populations.

But the failure of the salmon season is not simply a matter of fewer fish to catch.

Market conditions, such as competition from salmon farming and unfavorable exchange rates with the Japanese yen, have caused the price of salmon to fall so low that in some cases, the cost of catching the fish is more than its selling price.

"Twenty years ago, you could sell coho (salmon) for $1.50 to $2 a pound," said Mel Moon, director of natural resources for the Quileute Tribe. "Last season it was 15 cents."

Even though there was an abundance of fish returning to the comparatively pristine streams of the Quileute's Olympic Coast home, no one could make a living with prices so low.

So this tribe that is blessed by the natural beauty of its homeland plans to turn its fishers into charter boat captains.

At yesterday's summit, convened by the Lummi Nation, the call to save salmon was echoed by others, particularly the elders, who still speak languages inculcated by the sea and sing sacred songs celebrating salmon.

"It is slipping through our hands -- just like sand slipping through our hands -- all of our people everywhere losing everything we have," said elder Ralph George of the Shox-ox-hemel people in Hope, B.C.

The indignant old man with a shock of white hair recalled the first day he went in a canoe with his great grandfather to the fishing grounds in Fraser Canyon. It is the timeless place where his family has caught salmon and preserved it by smoking, salting and drying it.

"We bring the younger generation with us so they can learn how to do this when their time comes," George said.

But he worries that their time may never come.

"They're stealing our (salmon) stocks," said George. "They're stealing our heritage like they did before. I'd like to see the rest of our people step forward and say we're not taking it any more."

For the larger Lummi Nation, finding a solution to the problem is far more complex.

Even as the Lummi are exerting sovereign influence over land-use policies to create a more salmon-friendly environment, the tribe is seeking government and private assistance to diversify its economy.

"One hundred percent of Lummi families rely on the salmon harvest," said Raynette Finkbonner, the chief of staff for the Lummi Nation.

But with "chronic poor harvests" exacerbated by plunging wholesale prices, fishing families are losing their boats and going without income. And the Lummi government has lost 50 percent of its revenue, largely derived from a fish tax.

The tribe is seeking a disaster declaration from the federal government in order to get financial aid to diversify its economy.

And a new casino is under construction that will bring 250 new jobs.

At the nearby Swinomish reservation, the tribal casino has been a crucial lifeboat for struggling fishers. Casino employees who also fish get a leave of absence during fishing seasons "to save our culture," said Swinomish fisheries manager Lorraine Loomis.

In an invocation at the end of a traditional meal of barbecued salmon and Indian fry bread, a Lummi woman offered this prayer:

"We pray that we continue to have salmon. We promise to take better care of our salmon. And that you bless what we're trying to do to save our salmon. We know that it's not going to be easy because life has been a struggle for us for so long."

Today, the Lummi will meet with representatives from KeyBank and U.S. Bank to discuss financing so that those who fish can explore new business ventures.

Paul Shukovsky
Save the Salmon, Tribal Leaders Beg
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 2002

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