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Chris Aadland
Underscore.news and Indian Country Today

Helena Linnell stood outside the Coquille Indian Tribe headquarters on a chilly morning in October diligently picking out countless pieces of seaweed tangled in a net.

The previous day, Linnell and a handful of others, wearing waders and raincoats, had jumped in the frigid waters and stretched the gill net across the mouth of Ferry Creek in the Coquille River watershed near the southern Oregon coast in the hopes of catching fish. All they caught, however, was seaweed.

Linnell and many of the same people, mostly volunteers, were unfazed and came back the next day. This wasn’t a leisurely fishing trip but instead an important step in an effort to save the river’s Chinook salmon, which in recent years have essentially disappeared from the watershed.

“So, obviously the idea is that this (net) is clear enough that the fish don’t see it,” Linnell, the tribe’s biological planning and operations manager, told a colleague and tribal member who had just arrived to help.

The two apparently cleared enough of the seaweed because later that day the net snagged two female Chinook salmon. After quickly being untangled from the net, the two salmon, now destined for a nearby hatchery, became part of a plan to restore the once-abundant fish to the region’s waterways.

The fish-catching operation was part of a partnership the tribe formed with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) last year amid an ongoing crash in the number of fall-run Chinook salmon — a species important to not just the tribe but the whole region — returning to the river’s watershed to breed.

And the tribe, which says it has the resources and expertise to aggressively tackle the decline, wants to take its work with the state further.

The Coquille Tribe has requested, with the support of many of the region’s local governments and other organizations, to be named co-manager of the river along with ODFW. Tribal leaders say that sort of formal arrangement would guarantee the tribe has a seat at the table in decisions surrounding management of the Coquille River watershed, especially because, they say, ODFW doesn’t have the resources to adequately address the urgent problems that have led to the dramatic reduction in fall-run Chinook salmon numbers.

Helena Linnell, the Coquille Tribe’s biological operations and planning manager, secures a newly netted salmon in Ferry Creek, while her helpers turn toward the next target. (Courtesy of the Coquille Indian Tribe)

The tribe says the additional resources, like money and staff, that it could steer toward the problem would guarantee an aggressive salmon recovery effort.

“I think this is new for the state of Oregon, for another sovereign government to have a say in the management decisions on that river,” said Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council. “The problem is that ODFW has not put staff time or resources (toward the river) … and we’re just not OK with that.”

A Critical Resource

The Coquille River watershed includes more than 1,000 square miles, making it the largest Oregon river system originating in the Coast Range.

The tribe’s well-being has been intertwined with the river and surrounding land and waterways — and the plants and animals found there — since time immemorial. Salmon are considered relatives, nourishing the tribe for thousands of years, and continue to be a cornerstone of Coquille culture.

Without abundant Chinook salmon, the tribe said in an emergency declaration last August, the tribe can’t uphold its constitution’s five main objectives, including the preservation of tribal culture, the social and economic wellbeing of tribal citizens, and safeguarding the rights of citizens.

But the value of Chinook salmon stretches far beyond the Coquille Tribe. They’re also critical to the region’s non-Indigenous culture and economy.

Ten local governments, watershed associations, port authorities, business associations and other groups from the southern Oregon coast have sent individual letters to Gov. Kate Brown in recent months encouraging her to support the tribe’s co-management idea. Healthy salmon populations, the tribe has noted, would signal an overall healthier ecosystem.

The number of fall-run Chinook salmon returning to the river has dwindled from more than 30,000 in 2010 to just a few hundred in recent years. While there are numerous reasons for the drop, the state is partly to blame because of its ineffective efforts and lack of resources dedicated to the watershed, according to many of the letters.

The steep decline prompted the state to close the Coquille River to salmon fishing last year, which worsened challenges that the local economy was already facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bandon Chamber of Commerce wrote in its letter to Brown. Further closures, or extirpation of Chinook salmon, would devastate the area’s businesses and deal a major blow to a cherished part of the region’s identity, according to many of the letters sent to Brown.

“Without prompt and decisive action, these mighty fish soon may be gone forever. Our communities will lose a treasured resource, and our economy and people will suffer,” the three-member Coos County Board of Commissioners wrote to Brown. “The Tribe has resources to contribute and experience to share. Perhaps most importantly, it is powerfully motivated to save a salmon run that has sustained its people for thousands of years.”

An aerial view of the Coquille River near its mouth on the southern Oregon Coast. (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A spokesperson for Brown said her office has received the letters of support and is “engaged in regular conversations with the tribe,” but didn’t say whether the governor supported the tribe’s co-management proposal like the letters encouraged.

An ODFW spokesperson said the agency and tribe are discussing what co-management could mean for the river and the details of a potential agreement.

Meade said the partnership and heightened attention on the sharp declines in Chinook numbers have mobilized the entire area to address the crisis or raise awareness about it, adding that it’s not uncommon to see someone wearing a shirt that the tribe made and distributed with “Save the Coquille River Salmon” printed on the front.

While a variety of groups have long been working to protect salmon populations, Meade said the recent increased focus has prompted additional organizations and local governments to begin developing their own restoration projects or nonprofits to complement existing efforts.

“One thing that we saw through this process was just the incredible support from community partners,” she said. “It just came alive here.”

Tribes Push for More Authority

The Coquille Tribe’s co-management proposal comes amid a broader push by Oregon tribes to have more authority in natural resource management and water policy decisions.

In September, all nine of Oregon’s tribal nations sent a letter to Brown requesting that the state give the tribes more influence over water policies, citing the precarious future that many Oregon watersheds face, including threatened fisheries and the impacts of climate change. That letter comes as the state develops a 100-year water management plan.

In the letter, the tribes requested that Brown create a tribal-state task force to ensure the state is coordinating with tribal nations in implementing water policies, in addition to working with the tribes to develop policies specific to individual tribes.

At the time, a spokesperson for Brown said the state was including the tribes in discussions around its 100-year water vision and planned to have ongoing conversations about water policy decisions.

A volunteer drops a female Chinook salmon, caught in a gill net in early October as it tried to enter Ferry Creek from the Coquille River, into a holding tank to be delivered to a local ODFW hatchery for the winter to spawn. (Photo by Chris Aadland/Underscore.news)

Meade said the Coquille Tribe’s partnership — and hopefully co-management status of the Coquille River — could be a model for other tribes seeking a greater role in natural resource management issues traditionally handled by the state.

At a Jan. 12 meeting of the state Legislature’s Interim Committee on Agriculture, Land Use and Water meeting, Meade and leaders of three other Oregon tribes told lawmakers about a number of problems that involve water and the tribes, including drought, wildfire, decreasing fish populations and water quality. The leaders also discussed some of the projects, like salmon restoration and irrigation, that the tribes have undertaken with state, federal and other partners.

The leaders credited the state — which was the first, in 2001, to pass a state-tribal consultation law — for being a good partner in projects over the years. But at the same time, some said the state needs to strengthen the role of tribes in policymaking, which they said is especially important as the state sets future water-related policies.

The tribes, the leaders said, not only are sovereign governments that were in Oregon before statehood, but also have experience and traditional ecological knowledge gained from thousands of years living in the region, as well as treaty rights such as water allocation, to make meaningful contributions.

Kelly Coates, water and environmental resources program manager for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, said the tribe has dealt with drought and wildfire issues, as well as water problems and declining populations of native species, like lamprey and salmon, in the Umpqua River basin. Coates, who is a Cow Creek tribal citizen, told the committee that the watershed’s spring-run Chinook salmon are on the brink of extirpation.

Coates said her tribe, since time immemorial, has respected and worked to preserve natural resources like water “with a commitment to preserve these resources at least seven generations into the future.”

While the tribe, state, federal government, local governments and other organizations such as nonprofits and universities have worked together to fix some of those problems, she said the state could strengthen its relationships and collaboration with Oregon tribes.

Still, Coates said the meeting was a “positive step” for the legislative branch and that the tribe was hopeful it would be the start of deeper cooperation at the legislative level and with state and local governments across all issues affecting tribes.

“Our tribe believes there needs to be stronger government-to-government relationships with the state and tribes as sovereign governments,” she told lawmakers at the meeting. “We believe that if we are proactive on policies that impact both the state and tribes, we can better collaborate on solutions that benefit all Oregonians while honoring our tribal history and sovereignty.”

Laying Groundwork for Future Cooperation

After ODFW announced that it would close the Coquille River to all salmon fishing in 2021 due to the low numbers, the tribe declared a state of emergency and dedicated $100,000 in federal coronavirus relief money toward emergency management while the tribe developed a longer-term budget for restoration efforts.

The tribe then approached ODFW to propose working together to address problems in need of urgent attention.

The reasons for the sharp decline in fall-run Chinook salmon are many: warming waters, hungry seal lions and seals that eat salmon as they leave the ocean, poor water quality and habitat conditions, and ODFW hatchery stock shortfalls.

Another problem is the ravenous invasive bass that feast on salmon smolts before they can make it downstream to the ocean. Over the summer, the Coquille Tribe and state, along with other partners, worked more aggressively to cull the bass through electrofishing. The tribe then turned its attention to helping the state increase the number of salmon caught for the hatchery. That work lasted through November.

Since the partnership was announced, barriers were also installed to keep hungry sea lions from catching salmon as they entered Ferry Creek.

On the October day that Linnell and tribal fisheries employees caught two Chinook salmon, they were assisted by several non-Indigenous volunteers who lived in the area and wanted to see salmon thrive in the river again. Passersby often stopped to observe the effort or ask questions from a bridge that spanned the creek, hoping to see the group catch a fish.

By the end of the fall run, 48 breeding pairs had been captured and brought to the hatchery — a 1,500 percent increase from the previous year when ODFW was solely responsible. While not reaching the original goal of 70 pairs, Meade said that increase capped a promising start to a partnership she and ODFW both say they hope to expand.

“I’m encouraged that we’re still having conversations about future processes, how the tribe is going to be giving input on these decisions,” she said. “It almost feels like a new relationship that we're working on. And we are really trying to right now just make sure that we're speaking the same language.”

Going forward, Chris Kern, acting ODFW West Region manager, said the agency will continue its work with the tribe and already has plans to continue aggressively culling the bass population through electrofishing. Plans also include expanding the netting effort to other parts of the watershed to increase the number of spawning pairs at the hatchery, as well as improving water quality and habitat and tackling land management issues.

Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council. (Courtesy of the Coquille Indian Tribe)

While the numbers of Chinook and other salmon naturally fluctuate, Kern said the situation with Coquille River is worrisome because the dramatic decline in salmon returning to the river has not reversed itself, instead staying at or below previous historic lows. Even in other watersheds that have seen declines, he said the Chinook populations haven’t dropped as far below historic lows or have rebounded naturally more quickly.

“What is scary about the Coquille, is when you look at the historic ranges of abundance and you get one of those low swings, and it goes lower than it had been before in our observations, which this is, and it stays there for a couple years, which it has, that's where you start to get real concern,” Kern said.

Kern acknowledged that the agency lacks sufficient resources to dedicate to the river, and said it would not be able to continue or expand ramped-up efforts without the tribe. For electrofishing in the fall, ODFW had to pull staff from other parts of the state and other roles to help.

“Their help on this has been extremely valuable just from that resource standpoint, as well as their expertise,” Kern said of the tribe.

The Coquille work isn’t the first time ODFW has partnered with an Oregon tribe, but Kern said it seems to follow a trend of the agency working more closely with tribes. Meade hopes the ongoing conversations about future cooperation and how to better manage the river will lead to a more formal agreement between the tribe and state that would “explain purpose and intent and (recognize) shared resources and expertise.”

Eventually, those discussions will likely need to include other agencies, like the Department of Environmental Quality, to address water quality and pollution concerns. Landowners will also have to be part of restoration discussions going forward, Meade added. The tribe, with a more formal management understanding, would be in the best position to lead that complex coordination, she said.

Given the number of problems facing the watershed and species that rely on it, Linnell, the tribal biologist, said it would be easy to “go doom and gloom.” But she doesn’t view it that way. The tribe has good relationships with the state and area groups like watershed associations, along with shared goals, including a healthy ecosystem and a fish population rebound. Still, it will take a team effort, Linnell said.

“One entity can’t do it all by themselves,” she said. “It really will take everybody, but we can do it. I don’t see it as being insurmountable. I don’t see it as, ‘Well, it’s too late.’”

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This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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