Salmon fishing in the U.S. - new threats to age-old Native life

    by Gregory Scruggs
    Tuesday, 16 October 2018 09:09 BST

Oscar Alpiac, a Yakama Nation tribal fisherman, unhooks a salmon after bleeding it in the Columbia River near Fort Rains, Washington. September 8, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Gregory Scruggs

With freight trains blocking river access and coal pollution, indigenous fishermen in Oregon are struggling to make a living

CASCADE LOCKS, Oregon - Rebeccah Winnier’s father had a well-worn saying: “Daughter, when the fish are here, you’ve got to fish them.”

So the indigenous, 40-year-old fisherwoman heeds his advice when salmon make their annual return to spawn along the Columbia River, a spectacular feat of nature that slices a gorge through the Cascade Mountains on the border of Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest.

But as a poor fishing season ends early, Winnier and other indigenous fishermen find their troubles compounded as freight trains block river access and coal dust contaminates the air.

It has not been a good year for members of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, whose fishing rights are protected under an 1855 treaty between Native American tribes and the United States, whose terms Washington state did not honour.

Their plight mirrors the struggle of many indigenous people around the globe, as native groups face ever greater encroachment from governments and companies seeking access to the land they occupy or its valuable resources.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Natives fished the waters in an act of civil disobedience. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour in 1979 and confirmed their right to harvest salmon and help manage fishery policy.

But as Native Americans face off against the energy industry, experts say their rights are far from secure.

“Significant work still needs to be done to implement policies and initiatives to further the rights of indigenous peoples,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People wrote in a 2017 report.


Winnier catches her fish the old way - with hoop-shaped nets dangling from a wooden scaffold thrust into the river - and sells it fresh and smoked under the label 'Northwest Fish Hogs'.

In September, she fished as usual for chinook, coho, and steelhead during the fall run, keeping some for her family and selling the rest from coolers in a parking lot under a river crossing known as the Bridge of the Gods, a popular tourist destination, 42 miles (67 kilometers) east of Portland.

This year’s fall salmon run has been dismal, however, with most Columbia River fishing over in mid-September, weeks earlier than normal, as an emergency measure to protect dwindling stock.

Under treaty terms, tribal members like Winnier continued to fish, pending weekly decisions by tribal leaders, who watched stocks come in well below their forecast of 375,000 chinook.

“I already told my husband we might have to sell the house,” Winnier, who has fished the river commercially for a dozen years, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s a pretty scary run size.”


Railtracks run through the narrow Columbia River Gorge on both sides of the waterway, which is the only flat passage through the mountains that separate the Pacific Ocean from the rest of the continental U.S.

Winnier, who will fish for up to 24 hours at a time during peak salmon runs, has grown accustomed to hourly trains passing 50 feet from the riverbank where she works her fishing scaffold.

The trouble comes when they screech to a halt.

“Trains will oftentimes stop along that stretch where I fish and they’ll block that pathway,” she said.

Winnier said trains will sit immobile for anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours, which can be problematic if they wedge themselves between the nearest road and her scaffold. 

“They try to stop before our crossing (...) but they wind up just blocking that whole section I have to cross,” she said.

“I’ve had to duck underneath the train, go between the cars, or run all the way around it,” she said. “It’s a challenge. It’s most definitely dangerous.”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke with several indigenous fishermen working the Columbia River last month. With steep, narrow terrain in the gorge, there were no obvious, alternative route to the fish scaffolds if a train parked up.

Francisco San Juan, also a Yakama tribal member, improvised a solution to get round a recent train that had blocked his path: he slid a tarp piled high with fish under its belly.

Railroad spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said BNSF - the largest freight railroad network in North America - recognised that its "right of way extends through, or is adjacent to, lands that may be protected by tribal treaty rights.”

She said they had therefore been working with tribal leaders since 2015 to accommodate everyone's needs, adding: "The goal is to ensure they access these usual and accustomed lands safely.”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation saw one BNSF train parked upriver from the fish scaffolds; it was not blocking access. 

A Union Pacific train passed on the south side of the river, where scaffolds are similarly positioned, and did not stop.

“Union Pacific's goal is to safely and efficiently move trains through the Columbia River Gorge, minimising the time trains stop in a siding to allow another train to pass and mitigating potential disruptions to river access,” a railroad spokesman wrote via email. 

Mother and son Yakama Nation fishing duo Rebeccah Winnier and Jay Palmer, Jr. pose for a photography with chinook salmon on the banks of the Columbia River in Cascade Locks, Oregon. September 8, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Gregory Scruggs


Fishermen are particularly concerned about trains carrying coal, a regular happening that is only set to increase if a controversial coal export terminal is built downriver.

That prospect disturbs Wilbur Slockish, hereditary chief of the Klickitat Tribe, one of the Yakama Nation’s constituent tribes. He lives less than a quarter mile from BNSF railroad tracks on ancestral Klickitat land, where he said gusts of wind regularly generate coal dust storms.

He showed the Thomson Reuters Foundation photographs taken in August of coal dust lying 6 inches (15 cm) deep at the site of a proposed fishing memorial along the river.

“When the wind kicks up, it looks like a swarm of bees,” he said.

Wallace said by email that the railroad was committed to containing the coal dust, adding: “We developed a coal-loading rule that virtually eliminates any issues with coal dust."

Winnier disagrees. “By the end of the day you can literally wipe (coal dust) off your face,” she said. “It’s gritty. It’s gross.”

The proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals project in Longview, Washington, 81 miles (130 kilometers) downriver from Cascade Locks, would increase the frequency of coal trains by eight round-trips daily, according to a project spokesman. 

The Washington State Department of Ecology denied the proposed export terminal a permit in August, leading six inland states hoping to export coal through the terminal to sue Washington for blocking interstate commerce.

More than $23 billion in maritime goods move along the Columbia River annually, according to non-profit advocacy group NorthWest River Partners.

The coal terminal would create 300 full-time jobs in Longview, Washington.

"Is this going to be a superhighway for salmon or for fossil fuels?” Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental NGO that opposes the coal export terminal, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

For some it is an either-or proposition - not both.

Should the terminal be built, Slockish fears derailments.

“If coal gets into the water, they’ll never get it clean,” he said. “That’s my biggest fear.”

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