For members of the Chinook Tribal Nation, Chinook salmon are more than a simple commodity - they are a symbol of life.
I, myself, am Chinook, and I have had the pleasure of attending our Tribe's First Salmon Ceremony for the past several years. While the occasion is generally a celebration of early salmon runs, it is also a place where our ancestors are honored and Native American traditions are carried out for all to see. And it is specifically through the Chinook salmon of the Pacific Northwest that these cultural traditions are able to be passed on from generation to generation. By taking care of, blessing, and returning the "Chief Salmon" to the waters at the end of the ceremony, we respect the traditions of our ancestors and honor the fish that allow us to continue living.
Today, we - as a tribe and as individuals - are in an undesirable situation, as the number of Chinook salmon that may bless us is on the decline. There may be hope of turning the situation around in southwest Washington, however. The Lower Columbia Salmon Recovery Plan (LCSRP), which covers the Chinook salmon (among other threatened fish species) of Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania, Wahkiakum, and portions of Pacific and Klickitat counties. As of January 2007, the LCSRP includes more than 650 actions that have been drafted for implementation. It is our job as individuals to stand in support of this plan over the years to come in order to make sure that initiatives are carried out.
The problem of declining Chinook salmon populations has been ongoing since the early 1990's, when the first regional population was listed as "Endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Currently, a total of 17 populations of Chinook salmon throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, are recognized under the ESA. Regarding the Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon, this particular population was listed as "Threatened" on June 28th, 2005. To quantify the "threat," it is helpful to consider returns of spring Chinook to the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia River. In 2001, adult returns amounted to 362,876. In 2005, the number had decreased almost six-fold, to 61,431.
There are several very important reasons to commit oneself to the recovery of Chinook salmon. First, as previously mentioned, the Chinook salmon of the Pacific Northwest (and the Lower Columbia in particular), have an important cultural existence value for the Chinook people and many other American Indian tribes, who continue the ways of their ancestors by honoring the precious salmon that brings them life today. Second, and the reason most environmental policies focus on, is the need to preserve the Chinook salmon species of the Pacific Northwest to ensure future high levels of these fish. Chinook salmon (as well as all other types of salmon, in general), are in very high demand in the marketplace due to their consumptive benefit. If we let our consumption get out of hand now, we will give ourselves an even more difficult task of recovering the species down the road.
In attempting to save the Chinook salmon, there are several arguments in opposition. The main problem is that protecting the species will be very costly. Specifically, the LCSRP is estimated to cost $127 million for the first six years of implementation. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to implement salmon recovery policies, the more populations will decline; therefore, there is little reason to postpone the recovery effort.
At the same time, individuals like my father, who have (or have had) large stakes in the commercial fishing industry may be economically hard-pressed in the near future if they are limited by the number of fish they can catch or if they are regulated in some other way (such as gear restrictions and so forth). The opposition in this situation - referred to as the "Tragedy of the Commons" - comes from individuals who are fishing from a common pool and desire to extract as much fish as possible for personal gain, even though this may not benefit the fishery as a whole. The dangerous implication of supporting this powerful minority opposition is that our fisheries will continue to be depleted in the absence of regulation, making it very difficult for individuals such as the people of the Chinook Nation and other Native American tribes to live the way they once did. It will certainly be a tragedy when there are no salmon in the waters to honor at a Chinook Salmon Ceremony.
Although it is a costly endeavor and one that fisherman are opposed to because it requires them to make here-and-now sacrifices to benefit the fisheries as a whole, the bottom line is that saving the Chinook salmon of the Lower Columbia is of cultural, commercial, and consumptive concern. As Native or non-Native peoples, our job is simple: stand in support of fisheries policy such as the Lower Columbia Salmon Recovery Plan, demanding that the initial ideals of the plan(s) are carried out in time.