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The Fish Wars: Fighting As Northwest Salmon Run Dry

This is an excerpt from KUOW's "Sacred Catch" series. Explore the full series with additional audio, pictures and materials.

Hundreds of Indians climbed the cliffs at night and waited under the edge of the bluff for the first morning light.

It was the 1960s, and they had come here for centuries, or longer. But on these nights, they were there for their future. They had organized fish-ins — inspired by the sit-ins of the African-American Civil Rights Movement — and intentionally violated laws to bring them into focus. They invited the press to document their arrests.

Among the leaders was Billy Frank Jr., a young member of the Nisqually tribe. Frank was first arrested when he was 14 for fishing in familiar waters and would ultimately be arrested more than 50 times over the years.

At one of the fish-ins, a newscaster asked him: “If you had to put it in a sentence, what is it that you want in the long run?”

Frank replied: “What we want is to regain and to retain our treaty rights.”

These were tense times, largely because sport and commercial fishing had taken off after World War II. The fishers didn’t like competing with Native Americans and before long, violence broke out. Shots were fired, and boats were overturned and rammed. A bridge in Puyallup was set on fire.

The Fish Wars were underway.

Even actor Marlon Brando got involved. He was arrested during a fish-in and declined the 1972 Oscar for Best Actor for "The Godfather" to protest how Indians were depicted by Hollywood.

A prosecuting attorney, Stanley Pitkin, witnessed one of the most violent protests in 1970 and filed a case pitting the tribes against the sport and commercial fishing industries.

The case wound up with Judge George Hugo Boldt, a federal district court judge who used it as an opportunity to clear up the ambiguous language of treaties signed with tribes in the 1850s.

In 1974, Judge Boldt issued his decision. In a surprising move, he awarded the tribes half of all catchable fish from Puget Sound. His decision has been challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court but has always held.

Largely because of the Boldt Decision, the Lummi has one of the largest and most active tribal fishing fleets in the country today.

This is an excerpt from KUOW's "Sacred Catch" series. Explore the full series with additional audio, pictures and materials.

But the salmon are running dry. In 2013, there were so few sockeye salmon returning to the nearby Fraser River that the Lummi decided not to fish them.

Overfishing isn’t only to blame. There’s also climate change and ocean acidification, water-borne toxins and hypoxia.

Elden Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Fisheries Commission, advises the tribe and state agencies.

“I’ve seen the water quality in Bellingham Bay deteriorate, come back, and now it’s starting to deteriorate again,” Hillaire says.

A proposed international coal terminal also could threaten Lummi fishing waters.

“We’re always hopeful,” Hillaire says. “You know, the Great Spirit will guide each and every one of us toward a better life. I just hope it’s in this world.”

Hope came last week in the form of a bill, more than 50 years after tribal members started being convicted of felonies and misdemeanors for illegal fishing. The bill proposes to clear the names of 80 people who were arrested before 1975.


Follow #sacredcatch on Twitter and add your questions and insights. The series aired on January 21, 22 and 23, 2014, on KUOW 94.9 FM, Seattle.

Sacred Catch was produced by Jeff Emtman and edited by KUOW senior editor Jim Gates. Hear more of Jeff Emtman’s work and podcasts.

The story was produced by the KUOW Web team: Bond Huberman, Kara McDermott, Jenna Montgomery, Akiko Oda and Isolde Raftery.

Funding for Sacred Catch was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW board of directors and listener subscribers.

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