It was a meeting long overdue. Representatives of the 20 treaty Indian tribes in western Washington state sat down for the first time in a public meeting with the entire Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission - the panel that sets policy for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As co-managers of the natural resources in western Washington, tribes talk frequently and work closely with DFW staff. Over the years, tribes have met with individual and small groups of Fish and Wildlife commissioners, but had never met publicly with the full commission until now.
We asked for the meeting to build on the cooperative working relationship between the tribes, commission and the DFW. Whether it's co-management of salmon, elk or shellfish, we work best when we work together.
We had some important issues to talk about at the meeting.
One was selective sport fisheries. These are fisheries that target adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish and require non-clipped wild fish to be released. The tribes are not opposed to selective fisheries, but we are concerned about their possible impacts to wild salmon. We think that if you design a fishery around catching and releasing wild salmon, you need to be pretty darn sure you know how many of those released wild fish are going to die.
These fisheries are popular with sport anglers because they allow fishing in areas that would otherwise be closed due to highly mixed concentrations of healthy hatchery stocks and weak wild stocks. Monitoring of these fisheries has revealed wildly differing impacts to released wild salmon. In one fishery, an average of seven or eight sub-legal sized wild salmon were being hooked and released by anglers before they were able to land a hatchery salmon they could keep.
It was agreed that more monitoring is needed to effectively gauge the effects of these fisheries on the weak wild stocks we are all trying to protect. And that's an important point. We all want the same thing, whether Indian or non-Indian: healthy salmon populations that can support harvest.
We also agreed on the need to enhance the public transparency of the co-management process, especially in the process known as North of Falcon, in which tribal and nontribal salmon fisheries in western Washington are developed each year.
We like having the public know what's going on during the salmon season setting process, and we are committed to sharing information. Fish and Wildlife commissioners indicated they want to take a more active role in the North of Falcon process, and we welcome their involvement.
Our joint meeting was held at the Squaxin Island Tribe and was open to the public. TVW was on hand to record the meeting, which can be viewed at www.tvw.org. We think citizens who better understand fisheries management can engage more effectively in the public process.
We were encouraged by the meeting and heartened by the commitment of the Fish and Wildlife commissioners to continue working on our working relationship. For the sake of the fish and wildlife in western Washington, we intend to make sure these meetings keep happening.
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.