50 years after Boldt Decision: new and lingering challenges to salmon recovery - Salish Current
February 2, 2024
50 years after Boldt Decision: new and lingering challenges to salmon recovery
Richard Arlin Walker

Fish traps introduced to Western Washington by Euroamericans in the 1850s reportedly caught salmon “by the millions,” contributing to fish population issues that remain today; men stand along a weir used to guide fish into traps in a circa 1889 photo. (University of Washington, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

February 2, 2024
50 years after Boldt Decision: new and lingering challenges to salmon recovery
Richard Arlin Walker


Washington treaty tribes will mark the 50th anniversary of the Boldt Decision Feb. 6–7 at the Muckleshoot Events Center in Auburn. Some 500 people are registered to attend, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. 

When Caroline Ewing, who identified as a San Juan Indian, was growing up on the island in the mid-1800s, the fish were so abundant “you couldn’t walk [on the beach] without stepping on the salmon of every kind,” she told the Indian Claims Commission in 1927.

It had not taken long for that to change.

A lucrative commercial non-Native fishery had emerged after treaties signed in the 1850s made much of Western Washington available for Euroamericans. Fish traps were driven in the same places where San Juan Indians used to catch salmon with their nets and fishing gear. 

While San Juan Island Indians primarily reef-netted — using an artificial reef to guide salmon into a scoop net suspended between two canoes — fish traps consisted of up to 2,500 feet of pilings that led salmon into a 40-foot-by-40-foot cotton web net, called a pot, capable of holding up to 40,000 fish.

WiIliam Rosler, who also identified as a San Juan Indian, told the claims commission that such traps were catching salmon “by the millions.” 

Fishing resorts and camps sprang up throughout the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. At Hansville, on the northern Kitsap Peninsula in the waters traditionally fished by the S’Klallams and the Suquamish, one fishing resort reported 100 fishing boat rentals in one day in 1951, with guests catching their daily limit of six salmon each. 


Meanwhile, polluted runoff poisoned salmon streams and bays. Waves beating against armored shorelines scoured nearshores used by fish that provide sustenance for juvenile salmon as they enter salt water. Thousands of culverts cut salmon off from upstream habitat. (The state Department of Transportation is under court order to remove about 2,000 fish-blocking culverts statewide, 992 of them in Western Washington. But that’s only 10% of the estimated 20,000 barriers to salmon and steelhead migration owned by other state agencies as well as cities, counties and private landowners, according to the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office and its federal partners.)

By the 1960s, the salmon population was severely diminished and several wild salmon runs were extinct. The state and non-Native commercial and recreational fishers blamed Indians, even though Native Americans comprised 1% of the state’s population. Native fishers resisted often violent efforts by local and state authorities to restrict Indian fishing, and in 1970 the federal government intervened and filed a lawsuit.  

If not for U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt’s Feb. 12, 1974, ruling in U.S. v. Washington, there might not be any salmon left. Boldt ruled that 20 tribal nations had reserved by treaty the right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas and that they had reserved an equal share in the harvestable catch. His ruling established the treaty tribes and the state as co-managers of Washington’s salmon population. 

There were smiles all around for activists and the judge after the historic 1974 Boldt Decision; from left, George Kalama, U.S. District Court Judge George H. Boldt, Billy Frank Jr. and Dorian Sanchez. (Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission)

Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willie Frank III is the son of the late treaty rights warrior Billy Frank Jr., who with other Native fishers was repeatedly beaten and arrested by state authorities in the 1960s for exercising their treaty-reserved right to fish on- and off-reservation. 

“I’m 41 years old and I’ve been a student of the Boldt Decision my whole life,” Frank said. For me, Boldt 50 is a celebration. We’re not getting arrested in the rivers anymore. We’re not getting treated the way we were 49 or 50 years ago.

“But then I think about where we are today. We used to fish for eight or nine months on the Nisqually River. Now we’re down to 12 days. I’ve been fishing over 20 years on the Nisqually; this is the ninth year we haven’t fished for chum salmon.” 

Treaty Tribes of Washington invest millions of dollars each year in habitat restoration and — working in cooperation with state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, conservation and habitat enhancement groups and public utilities — annually release about 32 million chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and steelhead from hatcheries, according to data from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Efforts by the treaty tribes brought down dams on the Elwha River and won a court order that the state remove culverts that block fish migration. And, Frank pointed out, state law requires cities and counties updating their growth management plans to consult with neighboring tribal governments.

But as Lisa Wilson, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council and vice chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, points out, progress is being challenged by time and other forces. How to keep salmon recovery and habitat restoration moving forward will be part of the discussion Feb. 6 and 7. 

There will also be a discussion on the status of tribal-state resource co-management, an update on resource- and habitat-related court decisions, and a review of the successes thus far in the Boldt era.

Working to streamline

Wilson said two challenges slowing salmon recovery are increased demands on tribal leaders’ time and a disproportionate regulatory burden placed on tribes. 

“We’ve got so many issues today that we’re trying to deal with,” Wilson said. “We definitely have capacity issues in trying to deal with them because these issues come at us like a fire hose. And it’s not just natural resources and treaty rights.”

Wilson said tribal leaders are facing more demands on their time as their economies diversify and expand. Treaty Tribes of Washington directly employ more than 37,000 people, according to the Washington Indian Gaming Association, and annually pay about $1.5 billion in wages and benefits and $1.2 billion in state and local taxes. In addition, they invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in economic development, emergency services, housing, public safety, transportation and utilities, the gaming association reported. 

“We depend economically on our gaming and other industries and sometimes it feels like we’re too busy to be at the table when it comes to treaty-rights-at-risk issues,” Wilson said. “The last few years, we’re not getting the tribal leaders addressing these issues, it’s more on the staff level. It’s kind of losing its urgency in that area because it seems like every year we bring forward a 30-page list of things that need to be done and it just gets overwhelming.”

Wilson said she’s proposing to the Biden administration some policy changes that would speed the process for habitat restoration and salmon recovery. It starts with an executive order requiring federal agencies to make protecting treaty rights a priority, with oversight to make sure it gets done.

“We have trustees” — federal agencies responsible for protecting tribal treaty rights, lands, assets and resources — “who come at us as regulators instead of looking after our best interest,” Wilson said. “For example, we have to go through the same permitting as developers in order to fix habitat. We have to compete against other stakeholders for funds and when we get the funds there’s bureaucracy and red tape that keeps us from getting the work done A disproportionate, undue burden is placed on tribes and that shouldn’t happen when we’re the ones trying to fix habitat, a problem we didn’t create.”

Predators and warmer waters

Within broader issues of climate change, habitat degradation, and governance both tribal and federal, salmon also find themselves in daily peril from other protected marine animals. 

Daylighting a stretch of Padden Creek in Bellingham in 2021 is among projects around the state aimed at reclaiming fish passageways lost to roadways and other construction. (Salish Current photo ©)

The harbor seal population — which, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, has increased seven-fold in the Salish Sea since receiving protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act — consumes tens of thousands of juvenile salmon each day. 

A 2021 study, partially authored by NOAA, estimated the harbor seal population in the San Juan Islands, Hood Canal and Puget Sound at around 11,000. Each of those seals can eat from 10 to 100 fish a day, according to NOAA. If those were all salmon — juveniles or adults — on the high end, that would be more salmon each year than the Treaty Tribes release from their hatcheries. 

Consider that the endangered Southern Resident orcas each need 18 to 25 adult salmon a day, and the math indicates there just may not be enough salmon to go around. According to the latest count on the Center for Whale Research website, the population of the three resident orca pods is 75. That’s 1,350 to 1,875 salmon a day, or 492,750 to 684,376 a year.

Frank, the Nisqually Tribe chairman, said the abundant harbor seal population has thrown the ecosystem out of balance and needs to be addressed. 

“We get a couple of hundred at the mouth of the river every low tide,” he said. “We need to ask the question: Why are the seals coming up here? What is the reason for them migrating up here? We’ve got to have a solution because we do have a treaty right and the treaty is the supreme law of the land. As we move forward, there has to be some kind of plan at the federal and state level.”

Former Puyallup Tribe chairwoman Ramona Bennett, who was on the front lines during the fishing confrontations of the 1960s and ’70s, said seals are a major threat to salmon recovery. She and Frank said Coast Salish people historically traded seal meat and seal skins, and they believe restrictions should be lifted so seals can be harvested again until the population is in balance. 

The Vancouver Sun reported in 2021 that the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society in British Columbia asked the Canadian government to expand Indigenous seal-harvesting rights for the same reasons. 

“As hard as we’re working, the seals and sea lions are multiplying,” Bennett said. “The Marine Mammal Protection Act was established in 1972 and the seals and sea lions were taken off our menu. We could no longer harvest them and take them to market or to our tables. All work that the state and tribes have done is for nothing; we’re just raising seal and sea lion food.”

She added, “The seals know when the runs are coming in and they just queue up at the river. The salmon can’t get past them. The seals will rip the bellies out of 40 salmon each.”

Hope for the future

Despite the challenges facing salmon and habitat recovery, Frank is confident for the future, and not just in matters of salmon conservation. Embracing the wider responsibilities outlined by Lisa Wilson, he notes tribal leadership in a number of other statewide issues. In all of these, his confidence depends on a strong co-management relationship between Treaty Tribes, the state and federal partners. 

“It’s not just the natural resources that are at stake, but the health and wellness of our state,” he said. “Tribes are at the forefront of this, with medically assisted treatment facilities and top-of-the-line healthcare facilities that treat tribal and nontribal members. Then I think about education and what’s going to make a mark and stick so [past conflicts don’t] happen again.”

He added, “I look back to 50 years ago: our people were getting beaten, our people were getting arrested, our people were not getting the same education. Today, our history is being taught and there’s a Nisqually flag at 24 schools in the North Thurston School District. For me, that’s huge. That’s a key part of Boldt. But the health and wellbeing of our people won’t be totally restored until we get back to a sustainable salmon population and our traditional foods.”

— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker


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