I saw an ad on TV the other day, the theme was “Puget Sound Starts Here.” It’s a good ad because it reminds people that Puget Sound is sick. It recommended a lot of ways to help, such as fixing car fluid leaks and using less fertilizer on your yard. I like the ads because they remind people that Puget Sound starts right where we are standing.
It’s one reason the recent emergency shellfish bed closure in Hood Canal’s Annas Bay was such a shock. It made us feel like all our work to clean up Puget Sound is being flushed away while our treaty rights are violated.
The state Department of Health closed Annas Bay to shellfishing because sport anglers were using the banks of the Skokomish River as a toilet. This isn’t a new problem, and it’s a shame that an important shellfish bed had to be closed to get folks to pay attention to overcrowded fishing conditions.
While we were encouraged to see the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife work with anglers, and others to clean the waste from the riverbank and reopen the shellfish bed, we wonder how things were allowed to get that bad. The state first clearly identified the problem back in 2003.
Within three weeks of the Aug. 1 chinook opening on the Skokomish River, as many as 2,000 anglers a day were fishing its lower stretch, targeting the fish returning to the George Adams Hatchery. My friend Dave Herrera, fisheries policy representative for the Skokomish Tribe, explained it this way: “There are so many people, and they are fishing shoulder to shoulder. They believe if they leave their spot for very long they will lose it. They would rather step in the bushes.”
The closure denied the tribe access to more than 175,000 oysters from the closed shellfish beds. “The fact that the Skokomish Tribe must close an important shellfish harvest area as a direct result of non-Indian activities authorized by WDFW is an outrage and violates the tribe’s treaty rights,” Skokomish tribal chair Guy Miller said. He’s right.
To make matters worse, the increased pollution has scrapped plans to reopen another several hundred acres of Annas Bay that have been closed for years because of contamination.
More portable toilets and garbage cans may help reduce the problem along the lower Skokomish River in the short term, but we’re all working too hard to clean up Puget Sound and recover salmon for something like this to happen. We’re better than that. All of us.
For the long term, we need to bring more salmon back to their native rivers so no one has to stand shoulder to shoulder on short stretches of a few rivers just so they can catch a fish.
Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.