the film
Commentaries and editorials

Tribes Work to Restore Traditional Fisheries

by Ben Ikenson
Environmental News Network, April 4, 2003

Before flowing into the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River rips through the Northwest, gathering force from the many tributaries that feed it. As snow melts in early spring and adds more turbulence to its deafening cascades, salmon shimmer against the relentless white splash, hoisting themselves upstream to spawn.

Chinook Salmon (US Fish & Wildlife Service) For centuries, Indians in the region marveled at such spectacles from their perches on wooden scaffolds, where they used long-handled handmade dip nets to harvest the migrating fish.

"When the yellow flowers of Cum-See (Indian celery) appear, the Indians are called to the river (the Columbia River)," said Terry Courtney Jr., a traditional scaffold fisher and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in north-central Oregon.

Salmon are endangered today, and members of the Confederate Tribes — descendants of people who fished from scaffolds with dip nets for countless generations — are now using digital thermographs, solar-powered feeders, and electric aerators to help put fish back into the river.

Teamed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are conserving the only remaining native wild spring Chinook salmon — and steelhead trout — populations within the 10,000-square-mile Deschutes River drainage, a tributary of the Columbia River that flows from the snow-capped Cascade Mountains. The tribes are working in the Warm Springs River and the Shitike Creek on their 640,000-acre reservation.

Courtney explained the customary belief and practice of sustainable harvest. "There are unwritten laws that must be obeyed," he said. "They relate to respect for the fish and for others. They must be honored or there will be no fish."

In The Way We Lived, Malcolm Margolin wrote of a similar reverent attitude toward the river and the salmon in what is now California: "The Indians of northwestern California were very competent at building fish dams that could have easily reduced or even wiped out the run of fish. Instead, a series of laws and regulations, respected and strictly enforced throughout the river system, ensured that only an appropriate number of salmon would be caught, that upstream people would receive their fair share, and (most importantly) that an optimal number of salmon would eventually reach their spawning grounds."

Today at the Warm Springs Reservation, helping these fish not only bows to culture and a traditional conservation ethic, it also promises to redevelop a significant component of the regional economy through sport, commercial, and Indian fishing.

"The Indians' wealth and health depends on the fish," said Courtney.

The cooperative restoration efforts are satisfying their wishes to manage natural resources on tribal lands.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have a long-standing relationship," said the federal agency's Native American liaison Scott Aikin. "It is built not only on technical partnering efforts but also on policy development. The tribe played an integral role in helping the service craft Secretarial Order 3206: American Indian Tribal Rights, Federal-Tribal Trust Responsibilities, and the Endangered Species Act of 1997. This document has served nationally to foster strong working relationships between the service and tribes, and the Warm Springs example really reflects the intent of that order."

Aikin added, "The tribe's traditional knowledge of the ecosystem and the salmon's role in it is vitally important to successful fish conservation in the Deschutes Basin. The service and tribe continually work together, melding their areas of knowledge into an effective process to protect this remaining wild stock of salmon."

In their technical partnership with the service, the Confederated Tribes have been remarkably innovative and persistent in increasing chances for the salmon. For more than 25 years, they have worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Oregon to monitor various aspects of salmon life history, including spawning, seaward migration, egg production, harvest, and adult returns.

The Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery began stocking reservation waters with salmon and trout in 1978. Cooperatively managed by the Confederated Tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the hatchery produces eggs, inch-long fry, and two-inch-long fingerlings. Controlled conditions, free from predators, allow the fish to grow as large as possible, giving them a better chance of surviving the 298-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean when they are released.

Each year approximately 750,000 smolts — about 16 months of age — are released into the Warm Springs River to join wild smolts on their journey to the ocean, where they feed and grow for 1 to 4 years before making their return to the Warm Springs River to spawn, continuing the salmon's life cycle.

Still, fish experts estimate that less than 1 percent of young salmon in the Columbia River Basin survive to return and spawn. Even under natural conditions, the egg-to-adult survival rate of naturally spawned salmon is low, ranging from 0.1 percent to 10 percent, depending on a number of factors, including many which have led salmon to decline.

"Overfishing and overharvest are the cause of our problems," said Courtney, stressing that Indians "... were already conserving before the white man invented the word."

For more than a century, wild salmon populations have been in decline beginning as a result of unrestricted fishing. Canneries appeared along the river in the 1860s, and commercial fishing used seines at the mouth of the Columbia River, the "doorway" through which countless fish needed to pass to get to the ocean. So many fish were caught that draft horses were used to haul the nets from the water. Fish wheels — giant water-powered nets that "wheeled" fish in — were eventually employed, scooping up tens of thousands of fish.

One modern invention that instantly exacerbated the plight of salmon and altered the natural ecology of the river is the 20th century dam. The advent of dams beginning in the 1930s made it harder for young salmon to migrate to sea. Those that did return faced new challenges migrating to their spawning grounds. The river was transformed into a series of pool-like lakes, which confuse the migration instinct in salmon and slow the out-migration of young salmon, making them more vulnerable to predators.

Salmon now face additional problems, including water pollution. Also, water temperatures are higher due to dam and power plant operations and because streamside vegetation has been clear-cut and grazed by livestock, eliminating natural shade. Diversions, dam operations, and natural flood and drought have changed water levels.

Human impact most directly affected the historic fisheries of the Confederated Tribes when the 1957 construction of the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River inundated many significant fishing areas, including Celilo Falls, the oldest continuously occupied area in Oregon, where people have lived and fished for 10,000 years.

"Celilo Falls was what we now consider a mall," said Courtney. "It was where all the people came to shop and trade."Although the U.S. government invested $4 million compensation in economic development when the dam was built, according to Veronica Tiller's Guide to Indian Country, an authoritative reference to Native American tribes and reservations in the United States, "The consensus among tribal members was that no amount of money could replace the social and spiritual value of the fisheries which had been at the heart of lower mid-Columbia life for thousands of years."

The more than 3,500 members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs trace their ancestry to the Wascos, Paiutes, and Upper and Lower Deschutes bands of Walla Wallas. The Wasco bands lived primarily as fishers and traders in permanent settlements along the Columbia River. The Upper and Lower Deschutes bands of Walla Walla lived upriver from the Wascos, moving their villages in summer and winter to follow game and harvest berries. The Paiutes lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers in the high plateau country south of the Columbia River. The Wascos and the Upper and Lower Deschutes bands of Walla Walla were among tribal groups comprising an extensive economic network on the mid-Columbia region that depended heavily on the Columbia River and its resources, particularly the salmon.

The persistence of the Confederated Tribes in their collaborative efforts to conserve salmon is spawning impressive results. Spring chinook, aided by those efforts and favorable ocean conditions, returned in record numbers in 2000 and 2001.

The work did not go unnoticed. The Department of the Interior bestowed one of fourteen 2002 Environmental Achievement Awards upon the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The awards recognize government agencies, contractors, and others for exceptional achievements in environmental stewardship.

Of course, stewardship is an ongoing endeavor to sustain a world that sustains us. Or, as Courtney said, "Salmon need cold, clean water to survive — as we do."

Ben Ikenson is a writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who's based in Washington, D.C. He is also a freelance writer. His articles on wildlife conservation have appeared in regional, national, and international magazines, including Amιricas, Earth Island Journal, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, North American Sportsman Magazine, New Mexico Magazine, and American Indian Report.
Tribes Work to Restore Traditional Fisheries
Environmental News Network, April 4, 2003

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation