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Regarding leadership and habitat

How do you measure leadership in natural resource management? When it comes to saving the salmon resource, leadership must be measured in terms of heart, concern for our descendants and the ability to demonstrate courage and integrity in the face of great odds.

I have spoken for the salmon for more than 50 years, and I will tell you this: If salmon go extinct, it will be due to lost and damaged habitat.

Northwest fisheries have been cut dramatically over the past 30 years, 80 to 90 percent in some areas, and 100 percent in others. Still, some salmon populations continue to decline. Harvest cannot be cut back fast enough to make up for natural production lost to degraded and destroyed habitat. Even if fishing stopped today, forever, some salmon runs would go extinct because they do not have enough good-quality spawning and rearing habitat.

Here’s a simple fact from an old fisheries manager: Putting more fish into degraded habitat does not result in greater fish survival. Any habitat can only support a certain number of fish. Rivers are like aquariums in that way. When water is polluted, uplands degraded, waters heated and wetlands wiped out, rivers can sustain just so many salmon.

Here’s another simple fact you should know. We have the best fisheries management processes in the world. Unfortunately, the facts don’t matter to those who want to continue to destroy habitat.

A dead fish is a dead fish. It simply does not matter if that fish is caught to provide nutrition and sustain culture or if it’s destroyed in a turbine or in polluted waters.

Yet, the debate being waged over salmon in the Northwest is clearly one of allocation. Who is going to get a bigger slice of the salmon pie? Those who take salmon by degrading habitat want to do more of the same – at the expense of harvest. Regrettably, some harvesters also want more at the expense of other harvesters. To non-Indian society, the whole thing is like a political football game played by people who think their values and needs are more important than others.

To the Indian, it’s a more serious matter. We’re not in the fisheries management business so we can milk every last dime out of our mother earth for the next fiscal quarter. We want salmon to survive so we can feed the bodies and spirits of our children for generations to come. People need to stop fighting over the last fish, however they want to kill it, and focus on a positive vision for the future.

Frankly, harvest of salmon needs to be part of that vision because it’s a good outcome of good management. To the tribes, it’s a living legacy. It’s also the supreme law of the land – a fundamental right reserved by our ancestors in constitutionally-sustained treaties.

When you think of salmon survival in the Northwest, you must think of habitat, or your eyes are closed to the truth. When you think of leadership and political courage, you must think of those who are willing to admit it.

<i>Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.