It is discouraging to note Washington’s game and fisheries departments see little chance of winning their war against several Indian groups who insist ancient tribal treaties give them the right to gillnet steelhead and salmon out of existence in several rivers famed for such resources. This week oral arguments were heard by the State Supreme Court on appeals of three Indian tribes who claim ancestral fishing rights on Western Washington rivers. They claim they can fish when and where they please, in defiance of state fishing regulations. Lower courts have so far upheld the state departments, which are now releasing figures showing that in four years steelhead and salmon runs on at least two rivers, the Puyallup and the Nisqually, have dwindled to almost nothing. This is because several small groups of Indians have used filament nylon nets completely across river mouths. Upstream escarpment, by impossible. The Indians sell the fish commercially in Oregon, such sales being prohibited in Washington. A spokesman for the state game department, speaking in Centralia this week, voiced the opinion that while the state court will refuse the Indians’ appeals, the issue will be reversed in federal courts, where it is headed. And, he said, there isn’t much chance of any public alarm outside of the Northwest. The nation has in recent years had a soft spot in its hearts, or head, for minority groups with a cause – and generally regardless of any sensible facts involved. Recently the same Indian fishing trouble occurred on the Columbia River. The state of Oregon found in its efforts to control the red renegades, who had threatened gunplay, that Uncle Sam is rushing to their defense. This supports the pessimism of Washington officials. There appears no easy or ready solution to the situation, but several things are taking shape:
- Indian groups responsible for commercially exterminating the steelhead and salmon runs are minorities, and small ones. Their own tribes oppose their acts. Generally, the public has not recognized this, but if eventually will.
- The state departments have already said they cannot protect the fisheries resources and have no choice but to quit hatchery operations on the streams. This will mean complete depletion of the runs if the Indians continue their netting operations. And the Indians can extend the same sort of treatment to almost all of the state’s salmon and steelhead steams.
- The thousand of buyers of Washington fishing licenses are going to belatedly wake up to the sad news of steelhead and salmon depletion. And also to the fact it was their license money that had kept the streams stocked, and that if the Indian issue is ever settled it will be their money that will have to buy the hatcheries back to work.