Salmon Fishing only an echo of the past -The effects of the
Boldt decision on Washington fishermen
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
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
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
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
"It's hard to quantify what the Boldt decision has done,"
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
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
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.
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
DOWNSTREAM FROM THE BOLDT DECISION
LAST OF THREE PARTS
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