Letter to the Editor: I’m proud my ancestors and tribal leaders speak for the Salmon

By Carol Craig

I’ve been reading Pacific Northwest newspaper headlines about the abundant salmon runs in the Columbia River. The spring Chinook this year was the largest run since 2002 and third highest count since 1977!

I am proud that our ancestors, former tribal leaders and today’s tribal leaders continue to speak for the salmon resource that is so important to us.

It is not just ocean conditions or water temperatures helping the rebounding salmon but I believe mainly the Pacific Northwest tribes. There was much reluctance before the tribes successfully convinced state and federal agencies that something had to be done to assist the declining numbers of salmon since non-tribal people arrived in the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, had it not been for the struggle our tribal leaders endured over the generations there would probably be no fish today. That’s what a sports fisher told me to relay to the tribes after not being able to fish in the Yakima River for over 30 years. I would hear that again while at public venues.

Since the beginning of time tribal people have relied on the salmon and understand the Creator’s law that instructs us to care for all resources. Traditional environmental knowledge instructs us that the life of the salmon is the life of the tribal people. If their place of spawning, their place of birth and growth is destroyed, their bountifulness (habitat) will disappear.

Tribal people have practiced a natural, sustained-yield conservation since time immemorial and are taught to plan seven generations ahead. Over the years we have reluctantly but responsibly taken the technology developed by others and merged it with our natural philosophy, creating the best of both worlds to promote a pragmatic approach to habitat restoration and recovery of all species.

During the last four decades wild salmon populations in most of the Columbia Basin were disappearing. As early as 1973 the Endangered Species Act was applied to review the status of salmon but was suspended in 1983 with no action taken.

Late Tribal leaders Levi George, Watson Totus, Delbert Frank, Sr., Joe DeLaCruz, Claude Smith, Sr., Tim Wapato, Bill Yallup, Sr., Pete Hayes, Eugene Greene, Sr., Wilferd Yallup and many others continued to fight for the salmon. Today’s tribal leaders carry that on including Billy Frank, Jr., Don Sampson, Sam Jim, Silas Whitam, Louie Pitt, Allen Pinkham, Fidelia Andy, Jay Minthorn, Kathryn Brigham and countless others. 

In the 1980s and 1990s when salmon numbered only in the thousands, tribal leaders encouraged help from state and federal agencies who balked at the idea of re-programming hatchery practices and gravel-to-gravel management that protects salmon at each life stage from egg to adult on the spawning grounds. The tribes understood  changing land and water management to restore healthy salmon habitat would be long-term process.

The tribal plans integrated habitat protection with voluntary harvest restrictions on critical stocks and use of hatchery technology to support the declining wild salmon populations.

At the same time death rates of salmon exceeded their birth rates. Then in 1977 after more than 15 years of persistence, the Tribes’ begin supplementing fish runs with assistance from state and federal agencies. Preliminary results documented increased spawning populations, as well as new recreational fishing opportunities for spring/fall Chinook and Coho benefiting everyone, not just tribes.

Today I and others are part of the seventh generation since the signing of the 1855 treaties and we understand our ancestors who were planning for us today. That tradition continues.

Carol Craig is an enrolled Yakama tribal member and formerly worked for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (1985-1994)and was the Public Information Manager for the Yakama Nation Fish and Wildlife Program (1994-2007), and most recently worked at the Trust for Public Land (TPL) as the Tribal and Native Lands Program Coordinator. Due to a Reduction in Force at TPL, she is currently unemployed.