Originally published Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Guest columnist

Northwest salmon, tribal cultures and treaty rights at risk from disappearing habitat

Twelve years after Puget Sound chinook salmon were listed as endangered, their plight is little changed, writes guest columnist Billy Frank Jr. Federal leadership is needed to improve salmon habitat; otherwise, treaty rights are threatened.

Special to The Times

Treaty rights at risk

No comments have been posted to this article.

SALMON recovery is failing in Western Washington. It's failing because the federal and state governments are allowing habitat to be destroyed faster than it can be restored.

As the salmon disappear, our tribal cultures, communities and economies are threatened as never before. Our fishing rights have been made almost meaningless. Some of our tribes have lost even their most basic ceremonial and subsistence fisheries — the cornerstone of tribal life.

The failure of salmon recovery is the failure of the federal government to meet its trust responsibility to protect the treaty-reserved rights of tribes. That's why we are calling for the federal government to assume control and responsibility for implementing salmon recovery in Western Washington

We aren't failing because of a lack of funding, or a lack of effort, or a lack of desire to recover salmon. The reason is a lack of federal government leadership and coordination toward a set of salmon-recovery goals and objectives.

Puget Sound chinook salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. Twelve years later, they're still listed and that won't change anytime soon. A recent report card on efforts to recover the fish under the ESA made two things very clear:

• We are still losing habitat in almost every way we can measure; and

• Regulations to protect salmon habitat haven't improved. We're still operating under the same set of rules that got us into this mess.

Some federal agencies and programs are working to restore shoreline habitat, for example, while others are issuing permits for bulkheads and docks that damage that same habitat. Meanwhile, we lose a few more miles of shoreline every year. If we are going to recover salmon, we must have stronger and better-coordinated federal leadership to align the policies and actions of all federal agencies and departments that impact salmon.

While habitat loss and degradation are the biggest contributors to the decline of the salmon resource, the federal government's main response is to restrict harvest. Tribes are required to prove that our fishing and hatchery plans will lead to increased salmon populations and will not harm ongoing wild salmon recovery efforts. But those who damage and destroy salmon habitat aren't held to the same standard.

Federal agencies are using the Endangered Species Act to place an unjust conservation burden on the tribes. As a result, our harvest levels have been reduced to low levels not seen since before the 1974 Boldt decision that reaffirmed our treaty-reserved rights and status as co-managers. That's why we are calling on the federal government and its agencies to stop implementing the act in ways that are inconsistent with treaty rights, which are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, we have asked for a White House summit in the Northwest and congressional hearings later this year to look at the state of salmon recovery and the solutions we need to make it a reality.

We are at a legal and biological crossroads in our efforts to recover the salmon and preserve our tribal cultures, subsistence, spirituality and economies. Not since the darkest days of the fishing-rights struggle have we feared so deeply for the future of our treaty rights.

We kept our word when we signed the treaties that ceded almost all of the land that is in Western Washington. We expect the United States to keep its word, too.

Billy Frank Jr. is a Nisqually tribal member and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a natural-resources management support-services organization of the 20 treaty Indian tribes in Western Washington.


NDN Video