For centuries, salmon runs sustained some of the biggest human communities in North America along its west coast.
On Fidalgo Island, a 41-square-mile island 60 miles north of Seattle, the Swinomish tribe continues to kick off its fishing season with a “First Salmon” ceremony, a ritual honoring the majestic, nutritious, and once-plentiful silvery fish. Hundreds of visitors appear to show respect.
But sadly, the harvest is so poor the Swinomish now must buy salmon from other tribes to feed their guests (Morrison, 2020). On this coastline (far south of Alaska, where Vital Choice sources nearly all of its wild salmon and the fish remain abundant) the season has shrunk to about a month of fishing days. Years ago, the tribe could catch fish from June through December (Eligon, 2018).
The tribe has launched a movement to protect the salmon habitat and preserve other “first foods,” including clams, oysters, and elk. Some 50 other tribes have joined them, all communities that consider themselves stewards of nature and a way of life (Morrison, 2020).
Unusual storms on Fidalgo Island in 2006 signaled to the Swinomish that the weather was changing. But the tribe has gone beyond blaming only “climate change” – about which little could be done locally – and is finding creative and effective responses to specific, more local threats.
The Swinomish are cultivating clams on their tidelands and reestablishing oyster reefs. Farmers now plant further away from streams, protecting the fish from pollution, and newly-planted trees along those streambeds cool the warming waters (Morrison, 2020).
Life on Fidalgo Island
The Swinomish Reservation covers 15 square miles on the island’s southeast side, with a casino, golf course, and RV park. About 1,000 tribal members share space with a much bigger community of upscale homes overlooking the Salish Sea. The area also has income from potatoes and other kinds of farms.
In the late 1930s, many acres of tidelands were drained to create farmland. The new dike blocked a system of channels where young salmon grew before swimming to the teeming Skagit River.
When the state tried to limit fishing in the 1970s, tribal members fought back, asserting their rights under treaties from the 1850s. But the tribe also needed to protect the fish. Culverts – water channels consisting of large pipes under state roads - interfered with the salmon run.
The Swinomish tribe pushed its case for years, with eventual help from the federal government. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court, deadlocked at 4-4, let stand a lower court decision that required the state to remove the culverts. In effect, they allowed standing the idea that fishing rights implied the need to preserve the fish (Eligon, 2018).
On its own land, the tribe had already replaced culverts with bridges and also replaced old-style gates with self-regulating tidal gates. The tidal gates not only helped the salmon, but improved drainage (NW Treaty Tribes, 2015).
Protecting Salmon in Old and New Ways
Mixing traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science, the tribe’s environmental work has been led by a tribal member who returned to the island after studying science at Dartmouth and Washington State University.
Last year, work began on a setback along the Swinomish Channel, replacing the old dike. The goal is to restore salmon habitat while also preserving the potato farms. The tribe has replanted the area with native plants, and already chinook salmon, Dungeness crab, and other species have returned to the salt marsh site (NW Treaty Tribes, 2019).
A planned “clam garden” will restore community health as well, demonstrating the tie between humans, land, and sea. The tribe chose a beach where tribal elders remembered playing as children and digging for clams or netting fish. Until recently that stretch of land had been in private hands. Before the land was returned to them, members used to be chased away.
Now the tribe will build and maintain a low rock wall at the shoreline, creating an area for native littleneck clams, and also a meeting place for story-telling (Morrison, 2020).
Survival, the First Peoples know, means we must sustain what sustains us. It’s not an idea one can argue with, but must take to heart. The thoughtful combination of tradition and innovation underway on Fidalgo Island can and should be a template for other efforts to reclaim threatened wild resources.
Eligon, J. A Supreme Court victory for a tribe that's lost its salmon. https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2018/06/12/a-supreme-court-victory-for-a-tribe-thats-lost-its-salmon/ Published June 12, 2018.
Morrison, J. An ancient people with a modern climate plan. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2020/11/24/native-americans-climate-change-swinomish/?arc404=true Published November 24, 2020
NW Treaty Tribes. Marsh restoration protects salmon habitat and agricultural needs. https://nwtreatytribes.org/marsh-restoration-protects-salmon-habitat-and-agricultural-needs/ Published February 28, 2019.
NW Treaty Tribes. Swinomish Tribe's Restoration Improves Fish Passage Beside Farmland. https://nwtreatytribes.org/swinomish-tribes-restoration-improves-fish-passage-beside-farmland/ Published October 22, 2015.
Rawr, G. Why Protect Salmon. Wild Salmon Center. https://www.wildsalmoncenter.org/why-protect-salmon/ Published November 10, 2020.