What food represents the Pacific Northwest better than salmon?
This gleaming, jumping fish is one of the oldest and most important sources of food in this area. For the Native Nations of the Pacific Northwest, salmon are a huge part of their collective identity and culture. In the past, salmon were abundant, and represented security and wealth. Along the Pacific Coast, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River, fishing was and still is a tradition that goes back generations. If you have the chance to visit Neah Bay during the annual Makah Days in late August, you’ll see traces of these old traditions mixing with modern life. Members of the Makah tribe celebrate cultural traditions of the past by preparing a large salmon bake, holding war canoe races, and coming together for traditional dancing among other activities. The photographs below are both of salmon roasting during Makah Days at Neah Bay, ca. 2005 and 1955.
Over time, salmon populations have continued to decline.
Historically, at least 10 to 16 million salmon returned to the Columbia River Basin annually. Across the Pacific Northwest today, we see less than 5% of that return to our rivers and streams. This decline has had a huge effect on not only salmon population going forward, but also the local ecosystem. Southern resident orcas, a species of orca whale that eats primarily salmon, are at a 30-year population low and now considered an endangered species. The orcas aren’t the only animals affected by declining salmon populations – eagles, wolves, bears, otters, and many other animals are all feeling the effects of a changing ecosystem.
So, what has caused this decline? One big issue is the presence of dams. Costly and outdated dams limit salmon from being able to return to a healthy habitat. Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition aimed at restoring wild salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, is currently aimed at removing four dams located in the Snake River Basin in southeastern Washington. Unfortunately, in 2016 a federal judge rejected the federal dam agencies’ plans for protecting Columbia-Snake River salmon.
The value of a species
The US Army Corps of Engineers, the owners of the four Snake River Basin dams, esteem the dams to be a great value to the nation. Over 10 million tons of cargo are moved over the river system annually, which is estimated to be worth over $3 billion each year. However, the lack of clean and healthy habitats for dwindling salmon populations is a direct result of this finite profit. In a world of ever-evolving technology, a new cargo transportation will eventually replace the dams, and we will be left with a far greater loss. The end result, the permanent loss of local salmon, is priceless and irreversible.
For the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest today, the decline in salmon is not just an economic issue. The communities and cultures that were once thriving alongside the salmon, are now threatened like never before. Some tribal communities have even lost their ceremonial and subsistence fisheries, a cornerstone of tribal life, in order to protect the future of Washington’s salmon runs. The treaty rights that promised access to traditional fishing areas are now losing their value – if there are no fish to catch, the treaty is meaningless.
“Through the treaties we reserved that which is most important to us as a people: The right to harvest salmon in our traditional fishing areas. But today the salmon is disappearing because the federal government is failing to protect salmon habitat. Without the salmon there is no treaty right. We kept our word when we ceded all of western Washington to the United States, and we expect the United States to keep its word.” – Billy Frank Jr., Elder and Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
If you’re interested in a private tour of Olympia’s best seafood, check out our website for more information.
- Chowder, Duke’s Seafood &. “Environmental Impact of Salmon Decline: This Isn’t Just about Fish | Provided by Duke’s Seafood & Chowder.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 7 Feb. 2018, www.seattletimes.com/sponsored/environmental-impact-of-salmon-decline-this-isnt-just-about-fish/.
- “Native Knowledge 360°- Pacific Northwest History and Cultures: Why Do the Foods We Eat Matter?” Home Page, americanindian.si.edu/nk360/pnw-history-culture/index.cshtml#title.
- “Protecting Wild Salmon for over 25 Years.” Save Our Wild Salmon – Home, www.wildsalmon.org/.
- Treaty Indian Tribes of Western Washington. Treaty Rights at Risk. Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 2011, pp. 1–35, Treaty Rights at Risk.