Salmon Fishing only an echo of the past -The effects of the Boldt decision on Washington fishermen

EIJIRO KAWADA; The News Tribune


Franky John of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians used to check the tide and fish runs before taking his boat out on the water. These days, he and other Washington fishermen have to call a hot line to find out what day and time they're allowed to fish.

Fisheries officials from the Indian tribes and state and federal governments set schedules in their offices. They use statistics, forecasts and computer models to decide when, where and how many salmon can be harvested.

The hot line John calls is set up by his own tribe. Often, he can't go fishing even when he knows salmon and steelhead are running upstream. On days like this, he heads to the tribe's Diru Creek Hatchery to lend a hand.

"I may hang up my boots pretty soon," John said, watching children harvest chum salmon eggs at the hatchery.

This is what hard-fought victory looks like three decades after the Boldt decision: It's not freedom from regulation, but rather freedom for Indian tribes to regulate themselves.

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt issued a landmark ruling that solidified Washington tribes' treaty right to half of harvestable fish in the state. The decree gave power to the tribes to revive themselves. It also forced the state to learn more about fish. The state and tribes had to begin managing fisheries in a more scientific way to ensure the Indians were getting their rightful share.

Fishing in Washington still is a viable industry. It ranks eighth in the nation in spending by recreational fishermen: $854 million a year. And the state's commercial fishing industry records the nation's seventh-highest landing value at $145 million.

"It's a huge part of our economy," said Jeff Koenings, the head of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But it's indisputable that the Boldt decision forever changed the way Washington catches its fish. Everybody on the water has felt the impact: Many nontribal commercial fishermen went out of business, fewer recreational anglers fished their local rivers and tribes began limiting their catch.

Much less income

Randy Babich used to fish three to four days a week in the fall before the Boldt decision, catching coho and chum salmon alongside other nontribal commercial fishermen. Back then, 35 percent to 55 percent of his income came from his salmon catch in Washington, depending on the market price.

These days, less than 10 percent of his income comes from Puget Sound salmon. He catches chum during about 10 days a year he's allowed to fish. The rest of what he earns comes from harvesting Dungeness crab and processing chum for caviar.

The Boldt decision "was a tremendous impact at that time," said the Key Peninsula fisherman who operates a purse seine boat out of Gig Harbor.

The ruling cut the pool of fish in half and forced a management of fish by rivers, focusing on the preservation of weak stocks. Fishermen no longer were permitted to catch salmon indiscriminately in the open ocean.

In 1974 there were 3,261 commercial fishing licenses issued for trollers, and thousands of boats actually fished Washington waters. And that's just one category among several kinds of commercial fishing boats.

Today, there are 155 trolling licenses and about 50 working fishing boats. About 100 licenses are renewed each year without anybody using them, said Phil Anderson, intergovernmental resource management assistant to the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The sport fishing business saw a similar decline.

In 1978, about 370 charter boats worked out of Westport, Ilwaco and Neah Bay, said Anderson, a former charter boat operator who led the Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association from 1976 to 1987.

Today, he said, about 65 charter boats operate out of those three communities.

Other factors at work

It's unknown how much of the decline is a direct result of the Boldt decision. Other factors at work during this period include urbanization, pollution and destruction of salmon habitat; poor ocean conditions that continued until 1997; and a decline in the survival rate of hatchery fish.

"It's hard to quantify what the Boldt decision has done," Anderson said.

Not to John Blanusa, 78-year-old mayor of the City of Buckley, who fished the Puyallup for steelhead in its heyday in the 1950s and '60s.

"Fishing was fantastic until they (the tribes) put nets in," he said. "The Boldt decision was the end of all rivers. It has drained the rivers of all fish."

Blanusa said he used to catch 100 steelhead a year and took a half-dozen home. The last one he caught, he said, was about 10 years ago on the Carbon River, a tributary of the Puyallup.

State and tribal fisheries officials say it's a common misconception among sport fishermen that tribal nets are depleting Washington rivers. What these anglers don't see, officials say, are the slow but cumulative effects of environmental degradation.

That's an explanation Blanusa finds hard to swallow.

"They just say it's the habitat, habitat, habitat," he said. "The only reason that the fish aren't here is because they are caught. You guys are going to study until the last fish is gone."

No more year-round fishing

Fishing has dwindled for the tribes as well, especially for the Nisqually Tribe fishermen who await their catch at the southern reaches of Puget Sound.

Their salmon, en route from the open ocean, used to get fished out by commercial fishermen from Alaska, Canada and Washington, as well as tribal fishermen north of the Nisqually River.

In 1986, the Nisqually filed suit against northern tribes to block them from catching Nisqually-bound fish, said Georgiana Kautz, tribal natural resources manager.

Indian fishermen used to fish year-round before the Boldt decision. Now they have seasons, and they fish only three or four days a week. Those seasons can get shorter depending on fish returns.

Kautz often has to tell her husband, Nugie, a tribal fisherman, that she's closing the season for the year because fish are not returning in great enough numbers. That was the case last year with chum on the Nisqually.

While the decline of fish and impacts of the Boldt decision made it harder for commercial fishermen to make it here, there was another factor that contributed to the decline of fishing.

"Atlantic salmon are killing us," Georgiana Kautz said. Fish farm operators "can guarantee quality and quantity of fish. We can't."

Such farm fish, often shipped from countries such as Chile, resulted in falling prices of Pacific salmon.

For instance, commercial fishermen can sell ocean-caught chinook salmon for about $2 per pound, which was the price for cheaper river-caught chinook 15 years ago, said Doug Fricke, a Hoquium fisherman and executive director of the Washington Trollers Association.

In the case of chum, their eggs are now worth more than their meat. Fishermen sell river-caught chum salmon for about 10 cents per pound, but they can get $4 to $6 per pound for their eggs, many of which are shipped to Japan and other Asian countries as caviar.

"Something is wrong when eggs are more valuable than flesh," said Joseph Anderson, the Puyallup Tribe's fisheries management director.

These days, chum are just about the only salmon taken by nontribal commercial fishermen in South Puget Sound. And they often are the only moneymaker for tribes as well.

Many things have happened since the Boldt decision came down 30 years ago. Some were direct results of the court ruling, and others weren't. But some people can't help thinking that it triggered everything that impacted local fisheries, for good or bad.

Local fishermen agree that some things have remained the same: the horizon over the open water, the ritual of putting out the nets, the thrill of a good catch.

"The nice thing about it is those of us who still fish, we enjoy it," said Babich, the Gig Harbor purse seiner, while standing in a boathouse his grandfather built.

Regardless of ancestry, fishing is a way of life.

"This is our destiny," Nugie Kautz said. "This is what we have to do."

Eijiro Kawada: 253-597-8633



The series

SUNDAY: How a judge's ruling helped bring about the resurgence of Washington Indian tribes.

MONDAY: How Washington's salmon and steelhead are faring 30 years later. TODAY: How commercial and sport fishermen have seen their fortunes change dramatically.



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