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Columbia Tribal Fishers Harvesting Ceremonial Fish

by Wil Phinney
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 11, 2002

Tribal fishers are currently harvesting the first spring chinook salmon of the season in preparation for ceremonial events planned this week. A salmon feast at Celilo Village along the Columbia River is scheduled Saturday with annual Root Feasts on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and at the Longhouse at Satus, Wash., are planned Sunday.

Four Columbia River treaty fishing tribes -- the Umatillas, Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Yakamas -- are expecting a spring chinook harvest of 13,000 fish this year. That harvest will be broken down to include 6,000 ceremonial fish; 4,000 subsistence (distributed to tribal members on each reservation); and 3,000 for commercial sale.

No commercial fishery will be authorized until all ceremonial permit fishing is complete. It is anticipated that sometime over the next two to three weeks, a one- or two-night gillnet fishery will be allowed. However, because approximately 750 spring chinook were caught in the commercial sturgeon fishery earlier this spring, tribal fishers will be allowed to catch and sell just 2,250 fish.

Numbers for spring chinook, returning to tributaries early, are down from last year, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"Some old-timers are saying they've never seen such an early run," said Charles Hudson at CRITFC. "There are a lot of big 5-year-old fish, but a disappointing amount of 4-year-olds, which suggests there was a considerable impact to those fish while outmigrating during the BPA 'emergency' year in 2001 when flow and spill were significantly curtailed."

Meanwhile, tribal fishers are continuing to look for ways to expand opportunities to sell fish at higher prices.

CRITFC, in cooperation with Ecotrust, a sustainable economic development organization, is sponsoring a workshop on April 21 called "The Fisher-Chef Connection." The purpose of the workshop is to enable local producers of fresh foods and tribal fishers to meet directly with local area restaurant chefs and explore the possibilities of selling directly to them.

To the contrary, however, a plan to develop a portable fish-processing enterprise hatched last year by a group of Yakama tribal fishers has gone no where.

The Yakama General Council, by a vote of 83-15 (with 84 abstentions), voted in January of 2002 to develop the enterprise. An initial Fisherman's Board was formed and began meeting to discuss a Yakama label that promoted "wild" Columbia River chinook over farmed salmon raised in ocean pens.

The tribal fishers envisioned a custom-designed plant that would provide facilities to smoke, can, freeze and/or vacuum-pack salmon, adding greater value -- and commanding a higher price -- than fresh salmon sold over the bank.

However, the project has never received the support necessary to get started, said Simon Sampson of Toppenish, president of Columbia River Fish Company and one of the nine members of the Fisherman's Board that promoted the idea.

Sampson said he believes the initial mobile unit could be upgraded to a full-fledged seafood processing facility that would enable fish sales nationally and internationally.

"Wild salmon is a rare commodity and we could sure enter the market as the real thing," Sampson said. "Our wild salmon would demand top dollar for our fishermen."

Wil Phinney
Columbia Tribal Fishers Harvesting Ceremonial Fish
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 11, 2003

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