Bundled up in the cold, about 60 people gathered at Maritime Heritage Park on Saturday night (Nov. 20) in Bellingham for a vigil in support of endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Speakers included environmental advocates and members of the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe. The vigil coincided with five similar events across the region commemorating the 30th anniversary of when the Snake River sockeye salmon was added to the Endangered Species List — the first salmon to gain endangered status in the U.S.
In 2021, just 13 Snake River wild sockeye salmon made it back to spawning grounds in Central Idaho, according to data provided to the Salish Current from the Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) a co-organizer of the event. For comparison, the number of returning Snake River wild sockeye numbered more than 4,500 before the dams were built starting in the late 1950s, according to a Nov. 2 report from the Fish Passage Center and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
“If they’re going to survive, we need to change the status quo,” said Chris Connolly, Pacific Northwest field representative for the ESC.
Groups are specifically calling for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River running through the southeast corner of the state and originating in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho. They argue removing the dams will help restore wild salmon runs and boost the main food source for endangered southern resident orcas.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee recently promised to deliver a plan by July 2022 that will consider removal of the four dams and steps to replace the dam’s lost services, such as irrigation, hydropower and transportation, for local communities, according to a news release from the event organizers.
Alyssa Macy, CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, urged the crowd to keep up the pressure on elected officials on dam removal.
“As salmon people, we have a common fight to push this thing forward,” she said.
A member of Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, Macy said salmon fishing on the Columbia River was integral to the trade and family life of her ancestors. She said a popular fishing area, Celilo Falls, disappeared after The Dalles Dam was completed.
“It feels like grieving and like there is something missing in my heart,” she said.
The next speaker, Santana Rabang, said she is part of the next generation of leaders in the fight to save salmon.
Rabang, who works with Children of the Setting Sun Productions, said the Lummi multimedia company has started the Salmon People Project to share stories of connection between salmon and Coast Salish tribes.
“One of the main questions we asked ourselves is, who are we without salmon?” Rabang said. “It is up to you, to us, to you guys, to give voice to salmon.”
Closing out the event, Lummi Nation members Siam’elwit and Sit ki kadem shared a prayer and final words.
“The salmon are crucial to the environment — the way they nourish the river, trees, and animals,” Siam’elwit said.
“If we remove the dams, we know salmon will do what they always have done, which is to restore the environment,” she said.
The event concluded with a 1-mile march around downtown Bellingham.
— Reporting and photography by Jacqueline Allison
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