TOPICS > Science

Northwest ‘Salmon People’ Face Future Without Fish

BY Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker  July 18, 2012 at 12:15 PM EST

Swinomish fishermen offers a salmon carcass in thanks. NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

LACONNER, WA | Billy Frank, Jr. was 14 the first time he was arrested for fishing.

It was 1945, and he was on the Nisqually River in Washington state. Frank and other members of Washington’s Nisqually tribe were holding “fish-ins” as part of a civil disobedience campaign, protesting the violation of fishing rights guaranteed to them by treaties between the federal government and Washington tribes. Commercial fishermen were catching salmon by the millions of tons while the state attempted to limit Native American fishing.

In the decades that followed, Frank would be jailed more than 50 times.

The battle eventually lead to Judge George Boldt’s historic 1974 ruling, which reaffirmed the rights of tribal members to fish, hunt and harvest shellfish on their native land and allocated half of the state’s annual catch to tribes.

That landmark decision ensured that Native Americans in Washington state would be allowed to harvest salmon for generations to come. But overfishing, loss of habitat and hydro-electric dams have depleted salmon populations throughout the Northwest. Five populations of Pacific salmon have been listed as endangered and 23 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Today, Pacific salmon are facing yet another threat, which Frank fears could drive them to the brink of extinction. Salmon need the glacier-fed streams of the Northwest to survive, but since 1920, the average annual temperature in the region has risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That slight increase in temperature has caused the glaciers of the South Cascades to shrink to half what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey.

South Cascade Glacier images courtesy of USGS. Time lapse video by Travis Daub.

Alan Hamlet, a hydrologist with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, said that glacier loss is devastating the salmon habitat.

“Glaciers are a kind of water tower, a way of storing water under natural conditions, and when we lose that water tower, then the flows in the summer go down,” Hamlet said.

Glaciers also keep rivers consistently cool throughout the year. Without them, stream temperatures climb. Temperatures that rise above 70 degrees are lethal to adult salmon. And researchers at University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group project that by 2080, nearly half of the streams they monitor throughout the state will average weekly temperatures of at least 70 degrees.

Salmon habitat spans a wide range of freshwater, estuarine and marine environments, leaving them susceptible to changes in temperature, sea level and the water cycle throughout their lives.

Rising water temperatures don’t bode well for Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, who call themselves “Salmon People.”

“Our economy was built around salmon,” said Frank, who is now chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We’re trying to bring them back, to make that economy come to life within our tribes.”

Just as Washington tribes fought to defend their fishing rights in the years leading up to the Boldt decision, they are once again fighting to protect the natural resources so integral to their way of life.

The Swinomish reservation occupies 15 square miles of the Fidalgo Island in Puget Sound near the mouth of the Skagit River, a waterway fed by nearly 400 glaciers and one of the last remaining homes to all five species of Pacific salmon.

Fifteen percent of the reservation is at or just slightly above sea level, including environmentally-sensitive shoreline areas, where they’ve harvested shellfish for centuries. University of Washington climate scientists estimate that this area could see up to a meter of sea level rise over the next century.

Like many tribal communities, the Swinomish can’t just pick up and move out of harm’s way. Relocating is antithetical to who they are, said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“We are a place-based society,” he said. “This is our homeland. The Swinomish have lived here for 10,000 years. We don’t go anywhere — ever.”

The Swinomish are not alone in this struggle. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation has found that indigenous populations suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change because tribal lands are especially prone to drought, flooding, wildfires and coastal erosion.

After watching other tribes lose their homelands and traditional food sources, Cladoosby says, “We realized that something was happening in the environment. We didn’t want to get into the debate of what is causing it. We’re just trying to figure out how to prepare. We started asking the questions: What’s going on here? Are we next?”

Under Cladoosby’s leadership, the Swinomish have become the first tribe in the country to assemble a panel of scientists – the Skagit Climate Science Consortium – and conduct a comprehensive climate adaptation plan.

Among the group’s goals: strong science that focuses directly on the communities at risk and that can be used for future tribal planning. And they have more than just science to offer, they say. There’s also the ecological knowledge that comes from having lived in the region for thousands of years.

“Traditional knowledge is on-the-ground stuff,” said Ray Harris, a fisherman with the Chemainus First Nation on Vancouver Island. “From observing and testing and catching and eating, we know how the state of the resource is. We put it on the table and feed our people.”

Larry Wasserman, the tribe’s environmental policy manager expects the consortium to become a model for local policymakers who want to prepare for climate change but don’t know how.

“Much of [climate] science is being done at a regional scale or a global scale,” Wasserman said. “So it doesn’t become usable to local communities. That’s where it needs to start.”

When Native American communities think about the future, they’re not just considering the next generation, they’re considering the next seven generations, Harris said. And they believe that very long-term perspective makes them uniquely qualified to cope with climate change.

“Seven generations ahead, that’s about the right time scale for sea level rise planning,” Hamlet said.

And for Billy Frank, Jr., it’s about ensuring that his great great grandchildren also have the right to fish in Washington’s rivers.

“We’re running out of time,” Frank said. “We’ve got to make a change.”

Frank will join hundreds of other Native Americans in Washington D.C. this week for a symposium at the Museum of the American Indian with policymakers, government officials, and scientists to discuss how tribes can prepare for climate change.

For more reporting on climate and environment in the Pacific Northwest, go to EarthFix, a project of KCTS9.

Videography by Michael Werner, Katie Campbell, and Saskia de Melker. Salmon life cycle graphic by Vanessa Dennis.