Columbia River Indian Fishing Rights and the Geography of Fisheries Mitigation

By Allen, Cain | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Columbia River Indian Fishing Rights and the Geography of Fisheries Mitigation


Allen, Cain, Oregon Historical Quarterly


A SIGNIFICANT SHIFT HAS OCCURRED in the geography of Columbia River Basin salmon production in the past 150 years. By one estimate, 88 percent of adult salmon returning to the Columbia River prior to the 1850s originated above Bonneville Dam. By the 1980s, however, only 44 percent of adult returns to the Columbia come from in this portion of the basin (figure 1). (1) Many factors have led to this striking change in the biogeography of the Pacific Northwest's signature species, but federal river development and fisheries mitigation programs are undoubtedly two of the most important. Though upper river salmon populations experienced the most serious impacts from federal river development relative to other salmon populations, state and federal fishery agencies concentrated mitigation resources on the lower river. This spatial discontinuity between impact and mitigation had important implications for Columbia River Indians.

The geographical focus of this study is the mid-Columbia River, the stretch of the Columbia from the mouth of the Snake River to Bonneville Dam. The term upper river refers to the Columbia River Basin above the confluence with the Snake (including the Snake River Basin), while lower river refers to the basin below Bonneville. The dam was completed in 1938, the year Congress passed the first major fisheries mitigation legislation. In 1980, Congress passed the Northwest Power Planning Act, which together with the Endangered Species Act, would produce complex changes to the regulatory landscape. Those forty-two years would see a massive expansion in the artificial production of salmon in the Columbia River Basin, the result of programs meant to mitigate the impact of federal dam construction on fisheries. This expanded hatchery production was not distributed evenly across the basin, however. As we will see, artificial production efforts were focused in the lower river, a spatial bias that contributed to a serious minimization of the fishing rights held by Columbia River Indians.

In 1855, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government in which they reserved the right to fish at their "usual and accustomed" fishing sites, the great majority of which are on the Columbia River and on tributaries upriver from Bonneville Dam. The location of their fisheries on the middle and upper river have made Indian fishers vulnerable to the demands placed on fish runs by lower river and ocean fisheries, which intercept the fish before they have a chance to reach Indian nets. For decades, the tribes struggled to create an equitable harvest allocation system, finally winning a major victory in 1969 with the landmark U.S. v. Oregon decision. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Belloni ruled that the tribes were legally entitled to an "equal share" of the river's fish, later defined as 50 percent of the harvestable run. He also made it clear that the tribes were entitled to take their share of the harvest at their traditional fishing sites, which put a stop to state efforts to permanently shut down Indian fisheries above Bonneville Dam. While U.S. u Oregon was a clear legal victory for Columbia River Indians, the long-term shift of salmon production from the upper to the lower river was less amenable to court-ordered change. (2)

The shift of production to the lower river was the result of many factors, though by far the single largest was dam construction. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the federal government built more than two dozen large dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, including four large multiple-purpose dams on the mid-Columbia: Bonneville (1938), The Dalles (1957), John Day (1968), and McNary (1953). (3) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with state and federal fish agencies, conducted two separate programs to mitigate for the negative impacts of the four projects on anadromous fish. The mitigation programs--the Columbia River Fisheries Development Program and John Day Fishery Mitigation--are important but often overlooked factors in the shift of production to the lower river and the resultant minimization of Indian fishing rights. …

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