Stillaguamish Tribe: Way of life threatened by dwindling salmon runs

ARLINGTON — Shawn Yanity remembers learning to fish with his uncle on the Stillaguamish River. It was more than three decades ago, and his uncle shared a dire warning. “As soon as we lose the salmon, this is a dead river,” his uncle said.

Now Yanity, chairman and fisheries manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, is afraid the river is dying.

The number of salmon that returned to the Stillaguamish last year and the forecast for how many are expected to return this year are dismal, compared to past tallies. Chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon all had poor returns in 2015, according to the state Department of Fish &Wildlife. Biologists expect that 2016 returns also will be low. For example, the state is predicting that 2,770 wild coho salmon will come back to the Stillaguamish this year. There used to be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000, said Pat Stevenson, environment program manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe.

To families in the tribe, the salmon population is more than numbers. Losing the salmon means losing their culture, Yanity said.

“They’ve always fed our people. They’re one of the links between us and the river,” he said. “They’re in our songs, they’re in our stories, they’re in our creation.”

Without enough fish in the river, the tribe can’t catch salmon to have at its ceremonies, to feed its elders or to teach the next generation where and how to fish. Each family has a place on the river to fish and salmon is one of the staples of the tribe’s traditional meals.

“I hear our elders say they’re hungry, they’re starving for that food,” Yanity said. “People don’t understand that. They say, ‘You have food at home.’ But our souls are hungry.”

The Stillaguamish Tribe is a terminal fishing tribe, meaning they fish as far as the mouth of the river, Yanity said. They’re the last stop on the salmons’ journey. Alaska, Canada and the Puget Sound are the first areas the salmon reach.

If there’s a mistake or an overharvest somewhere along the line, “we pay the price because we’re last in line,” Yanity said. “As a terminal tribe, we need our fish to come home.”

The salmon last year didn’t just come back in fewer numbers than normal, they came back smaller. Fish that should have weighed at least 12 pounds were four or five pounds, he said. Smaller fish produce fewer eggs, which continues to dent the population.

A lot of factors play into the declining returns. Weather patterns, low water levels, late-season floods and warmer water temperatures have hurt the food supply for salmon or threatened the health of their eggs. Habitat for juvenile salmon in estuaries has been disappearing for more than a century, mostly due to diking and development. Poaching also is a problem as some people choose to fish even when seasons are called off for certain species.

Habitat restoration projects are under way around Washington but are contentious because they can encroach on land that’s been used for something else, often farming. It’s not easy to strike a balance between fishing and farming when both need land that is fast being swallowed by urban development, Yanity said. Farmers and fishermen find themselves at odds, but he sees more similarities than differences. Local tribes and longtime farmers have legacies along the Stillaguamish. They’re both trying to protect their cultures.

Three decades ago, there were 30 active fishermen in the Stillaguamish Tribe. Now there are three.

Yanity sets his nets a few times a year when salmon returns allow. Hunting and fishing are at the core of who he is. When there were more salmon, he remembers ending a day of fishing by calling family and friends to offer them some of his catch. It’s not just catching the fish that is key to the Stillaguamish identity, it’s sharing and providing for others in the tribe.

“That’s one of the things I live for,” Yanity said. “Being on the river, watching those corks pop and seeing the fish hit the net.”

Experienced fishermen always have taught the next generation. In many spots, there are tricks to navigating the water, casting nets without getting them caught and disentangling and mending them when they do. When there aren’t enough salmon for families to fish together, those teachings don’t happen. Even if populations surge back to historic numbers, there’s no replacing the lessons that are lost, Yanity said.

The tribe, in partnership with other groups, does what it can to bolster salmon populations. Each year, the tribe raises up to 250,000 young salmon to release into the wild, Stevenson said. Students from local schools come to the tribe’s hatchery to learn about the life cycles of salmon and caring for rivers. Stillaguamish employees research the river and look for opportunities to restore habitat.

“It takes a lot more work than what we can do,” Yanity said.

There needs to be an emphasis on preventing habitat damage, not just on mitigation — or creating new habitats to replace what gets lost or damaged by development. People are trying to replace ecosystems that have been functioning for years with new habitats that are unproven. Even if a new habitat is as successful as the previous one, that only maintains the number of fish. At this point, the population needs to grow, Stevenson said.

It takes time to see results from restoration projects, which can be discouraging to partners and funders, he said. It took decades for the numbers to dwindle as far as they have, and Stevenson expects it’ll take decades to recover.

Last year’s returns were the lowest he’s seen since he started working for the tribe in 1988. For coho, the state reports they were the lowest on record. “We need the salmon to come home and feed our people,” Yanity said. “We’re fishers. We’re hunters. We can’t lose that. If we do, we fail our people, we fail our communities. That’s how deep-rooted salmon are to us.”

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