SEATTLE — As the sun set and Seattle’s skyline flicked on from the shore behind them, Richard Penn and his daughter Leslie Starr rifled through layers of green mesh netting to free a silvery, fat king salmon. They tossed it into a box of ice aboard their boat.
They would repeat this shuffle dozens of times, beginning here in Elliott Bay just after 9 p.m. Wednesday. It was the annual start of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot tribes’ Green River Chinook treaty fishery.
Heading into the West Waterway of the Duwamish earlier that evening, long streaks of red began to light up the screen of the blue depth finder aboard one of Muckleshoot’s fisheries department boats. “Those are fish,” said Gerry Bevins, Muckleshoot fish technician, pointing to the screen.
As other fragile Chinook fisheries shutter this year to protect future runs, the salmon were a welcome sight. Surveys in July revealed what appear to be some of the best numbers of Chinook seen in nearly two decades. They still likely pale in comparison to the runs their ancestors harvested from, as the watershed continues to lose habitat to development. But it was a promising sign for fisheries managers who have gone to great lengths to rebuild the run.
After a night of fishing, Penn and Starr, who are Muckleshoot, would haul in more than 1,000 pounds of these Green River Chinook to be sorted and sampled by state and tribal biologists and prepped for sale under the First Avenue Bridge.
“I was lost without fishing. I fished all my life,” Penn said of previous conservation closures of the fishery. “It’s important to feed my family and teach my kids. Just to be on the water is like medicine for us.”
Against an urban backdrop, piles of scrap metal along the riverbanks and planes landing overhead every few seconds, Muckleshoot families harvested fish, pulling them one by one from their nets. Amid a heavily industrialized river and waterfront, the tradition persisted.
“It’s really about cultural continuity,” Valerie Segrest said just shortly after coming off the water Thursday morning. “We are people who descend from this village. Our ancestors had a completely different type of fishing experience than we have today, but when we’re not exercising our rights, they’re weakened.”
“A huge success story”
Chinook that hatch in the Green River, which is dozens of miles upstream from Elliott Bay, make their way through a freshwater highway that’s become unrecognizable from generations before them. More than a century ago, the Duwamish River meandered freely until spilling into the southern Salish Sea, also known as Puget Sound. It provided a vital nursery that offered food and protection from predators for juvenile salmon on their way to the ocean. Clams nestled in the muck nearby, and crabs and worms scurried along the bottom.
“This Chinook run, it was probably one of the biggest Chinook runs in the Salish Sea,” said Rob Purser, Suquamish fisheries director, speaking of pre-colonial times. “The numbers, of course, have really dwindled since then.”
Today, a man-made island splits the Duwamish into two waterways. They’re filled with barges carrying things like gravel and shipping containers. The constant hum of a cement plant fills the air. The water that baby salmon have to zip through on their way to the salty bay is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals.
“We just don’t have all the tools that salmon need,” said Mike Mahovlich of the Muckleshoot Tribe’s fisheries department.
Through moving adult salmon to prime spawning grounds in the Green River, ramping up hatchery production, closing Chinook harvest for up to a decade at a time, and infusing more than $20 million annually into habitat restoration efforts, the Muckleshoot and Suquamish tribes have carefully sustained this species on the brink.
“It’s a huge success story in a time where there’s a lot of stocks in Puget Sound struggling,” Mahovlich said.
In the Cedar River, for example, sockeye are returning in some of their lowest numbers recorded. Historically there might have been up to 600,000 returning adult sockeye. In 2020, 23,000 sockeye were counted at the Ballard Locks, but only about 3,000 made it through Lake Washington to the mouth of the Cedar.
“We’ve got to work outside the box,” Mahovlich said aboard the tribe’s fisheries department boat. “The estuary’s gone in the Duwamish … 99% is gone. The Ballard Locks are a wall between the saltwater and freshwater.”
More than 380 fish were caught in the July test fisheries in Elliott Bay, the best numbers in over 15 years, Mahovlich said. The fishery managers use these numbers to model how many fish may be coming back to the Green River.
This year’s preseason modeling estimated about 25,000 Chinook returning to the Green River. Muckleshoot and Suquamish fishers harvested just over 4,000 Chinook in the 12-hour fishery this week. The fishery will open for another 12-hour window next week.
A sport fishery in Elliott Bay opened to non-Native fishermen over the weekend. Freshwater sport fisheries on portions of the Green River will open in the coming weeks.
“Takes me back in time”
Fishing families began to arrive at Muckleshoot’s commercial seafood dock near the First Avenue Bridge just a few hours after the fishery began Wednesday night.
“637!” someone called out as the scale weighed in one family’s catch just before midnight.
“Turn around,” Mike Jerry told his kids Kiva and Michael as he sprayed blood off their rubber fishing bibs. They were coming onto shore for a quick break before setting more nets.
“Catching fish … I like it no matter what. This takes me away from work and it takes me back in time,” said Jerry, a Muckleshoot council member and longtime fisherman.
Jerry remembers going out on the Green River near Auburn in the early ‘70s with his dad and other relatives as an elementary school kid. At one point, state fish and game officers physically forced his family out of the water. Some Muckleshoot people were arrested.
It wasn’t until he was older that he learned it was a “fish-in” — a protest fishery staged amid growing tensions over the state’s failure to recognize tribes’ treaty fishing rights. Indigenous people across the state were beaten by fish and game wardens as racist campaigns against Indigenous fishers were plastered on beers, T-shirts and bumper stickers.
“Growing up, we did hear things in school, the non-Indian kids would tell us we catch all the fish,” Jerry said.
In 1974, Judge George Hugo Boldt handed down a 203-page decision granting Indigenous people half of the harvestable salmon running through their traditional waters, and launching a process of co-management: the state and tribes working together to preserve sustainable, harvestable salmon runs. But for many treaty tribes, there’s been little or no fish to catch as the work of the last 150 years of colonization — impounding rivers behind dams for drinking water and hydropower; funneling streams through narrow culverts that become fire hoses; releasing toxic chemicals and human waste into the watersheds — deteriorates salmon runs.
As shimmering Chinook arrived at Muckleshoot’s dock, state and tribal biologists in an assembly line scanned fish for metal tags, sorting them by hatchery and wild origin. They shaved off chunks of the fishes’ heads, excavating their otoliths, or ear bones, and plucking off a few scales to collect some basic identifying information. They counted each fish as it passed through on its way to processing for retail sale.
As the rush began to wind down Thursday morning, Starr, running on a few hours’ sleep, reflected on what kept her going. The fishery has helped her understand how her ancestors’ survived and thrived.
“For other people, when they see us out on the water,” Starr said, “respect our treaty, and our traditions and our knowledge.”