Customer opinion: hatchery fish are treated fish
Tribal treaty rights are under attack by so-called conservation groups who are threatening legal action against our hatcheries.
Hatchery production is a critical part of salmon recovery. Along with harvest, habitat and hydropower, this is one of the four Hs that fisheries managers keep in balance.
We know the real reason we fail to recover salmon is that their habitat is being destroyed faster than we can restore it and that climate change is wreaking havoc on marine productivity and survival. But for some reason hatcheries continue to be blamed for declining salmon runs and loss of fishing opportunities. Much of that blame comes from false accusations that farmed salmon contaminates the genetic purity of wild salmon.
There are no known cases of extinction of a wild salmon or rainbow trout population while a local hatchery was producing the same stock. Meanwhile, several hundred unique West Coast populations have disappeared in places where there are no local hatcheries.
Washington has the largest hatchery system in the world. The tribes and our state co-manager operate hatcheries based on the latest scientific advances to provide salmon fishing for all. More than half of all salmon caught in West Washington come from hatcheries. We evaluate hatchery programs to make sure they don’t interfere with the recovery of salmon.
In fact, in some areas, hatchery programs are a lifeline in preserving and restoring populations listed under the Endangered Species Act. The hatchery programs also provide a lifeline for critically endangered southern resident killer whales, with whom Lummi and other tribes share a cultural bond.
The Lummi Nation Hatchery Program has reopened our traditional spring chinook fishery on the Nooksack River starting in 2020. We have named the annual Mother’s Day fishery Paq wet suit in honor of Randy Kinley Sr., a Lummi Nation policy representative who died in 2017. Randy understood the need to protect our hatchery fish and worked with the state to create a 10-year plan to increase hatchery production until the mid-1980s.
Hatchery fish are treaty fish. When we signed a treaty with the US government in 1855, we were promised the right to continue fishing as we always have. The Constitution of the United States states that treaties with tribal nations are “the supreme law of the land”. Our hatcheries adhere to these treaties because continued habitat degradation prevents the return of naturally occurring salmon in exploitable numbers.
There is no legal basis to challenge our hatchery programs, yet we face the constant threat of litigation. Some organizations pose as conservation groups, looking for donations to help restore salmon, then spending the money on lawsuits against our treaty rights.
To make matters worse, we find ourselves competing for funding with these groups as the tribes fight to solve a problem we did not create – reclaim the fisheries that were promised to us in the treaties.
We should not be dependent on hatcheries. We would prefer to have a functioning ecosystem that supports natural salmon production.
If conservation groups are serious about helping salmon recovery, they should invest time and money in habitat protection and restoration. In the meantime, they should stand up for hatcheries that provide sustainable numbers of salmon.
Lisa Wilson is a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council and Commissioner of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Visit nwifc.org.