I intended to sit down at this computer in recent weeks and address the 40th anniversary of the (insert your characterization here) Boldt Decision.
That would be the one which came out of a federal courtroom on Feb. 5, 1974, and told the state that Western Washington tribes were entitled to half of the harvestable salmon and steelhead.
Preceded by fisticuffs and gunfire, it has been proceeded by decades of hate and angst — and it may be draining our collective will to fight for the survival of the fish we all love.
I reached out to biologists dealing with comanagement.
One usually talkative source went completely silent.
Can’t blame them.
I reached out to talk to Billy Frank Jr., the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission who was on the front lines of the so-called Fish Wars.
I didn’t hear back from his handlers, except that I might try another tribal fisheries leader instead.
Can’t blame them.
In the end the time I would have spent on a Boldt blog went towards defending hatchery steelhead in Puget Sound as well as wild fish in general and as ever, wolf news, and I didn’t write anything on the decision.
Sometimes it’s better, and easier, that way.
Not everyone in our camp has been so lazy.
The Reel News took up the subject in their February edition. So did Ron Judd late last week.
Judd would be The Seattle Times reporter/columnist/satirist, and he has an admirable take.
(TRN didn’t post theirs, but it’s described as the memories of a now-retired fish cop.)
An angler, Judd was 11 (I was 2) when Judge George Boldt (himself a conservative fisherman) came down with his Cascadia-rattling ruling.
Wrapping the long article around his attempt with a float and jig — glory hallelujah, finally, a thoughtful fishing piece written by someone who isn’t waving a fly rod — to catch his annual Nooksack chum for the smoker, Judd writes:
Perhaps because it has been the law of the land for all my memory, I have never wasted much time questioning the Boldt decision’s fairness. In a local newspaper career of nearly 30 years, including a decade working as this publication’s outdoors reporter, I’ve written frequently about fisheries issues, often defending that treaty right in opinion pieces — frequently to the rabid consternation of some sport-fishing friends.
To be sure, when wearing my river-guy neoprene costume, I have had my doubts. Still do. Not about Boldt’s fairness, but about its practical effectiveness in a time when an alarming number of Puget Sound wild (as opposed to hatchery-reared) salmon have, since the late 1990s, barely clung to existence on the federal Endangered Species list.
He wonders about gillnets stretching across local rivers, about the apparent lack of enforcement, about the paucity of information on who is netting and what is being targeted (that can be found in difficult-to-read agreed-to fisheries regs), and about how many fish are being caught.
(In the grand scheme, he learned what I did several years ago, that far from an impossible-to-manage-for 50-50 catch, one side or the other usually catches more each year.)
Importantly, Judd wonders why, in the name of building a larger coalition with sport anglers to work on fish issues, the tribes can’t move towards a more selective method.
(On the Lower Columbia, beach and purse seine netting is being attempted as a way to harvest hatchery salmon and steelhead while returning wild fish to the river.)
And he explores the “eggshell dancing” about the subject of gillnetting in public discourse:
We are inundated with media accounts of the countless obstacles a salmon faces over its long journey from spawning gravel to sea and back — with never so much as a hint of acknowledgment that the same fish can still wind up dead, 10 minutes from the spawning finish line, in a gill net plainly visible to even the most nearsighted Mr. Magoo. The message — especially when the public is being asked to make further sacrifices to save fish habitat — could not be more mixed: Do we care about salmon or not?
Here in the EverPC State, we choose to ignore those buoys and curtains of death in the rivers.
And we anglers fail to recognize that the tribes also raise salmon for harvest — 40 million smolts a year, according to NWIFC — and that we intercept some of those fish too.
Yes, there is room for improvement on all sides.
One of the areas that we fishermen of all stripes could really work together on is the all-important habitat question.
No question about the tribes’ dedication on that front. Billy Frank Junior’s monthly message always hammers on it — of late it’s focused on fish-passage-blocking culverts, which for some reason the state has been fighting, as if it’s 1973 all over.
Yes, that boils down to money and there is a 17-year timeline in place, but it begs the question, how serious are we about salmon and steelhead recovery in Western Washington any more?
Not very much, it might seem.
I worry that this emotionally charged mess of salmon entanglements has worn too many of us down. Most of us claim to love the wild Pacific salmon. Few of us want to pay its true cost. And time is not on our side: As the fish that might be the truest indicator species for our cherished Northwest way of life hovers on the brink, 40 years of divisiveness has robbed us of hope.
Outside the Walgamott house they’re spray-painting the gravel pad with survey marks for where a rain garden will go in to filter street runoff before it drains into Thornton Creek, a known salmon tributary of Lake Washington.
It’s an incredibly small step, but if it works — and there’s evidence it does — maybe one day down the line there will be another wild coho caught out at Sekiu, another for a tribal fisherman above the locks, and another pair to spawn the next generation.
Maybe I’m just a wishful thinker.
No, actually, I know I am.
I’m a fisherman, and I can’t think of anything more wishful than throwing a line in the water and expecting there to be something out there swimming around.