Managing the Salish Sea: The Coast Salish Perspective

By Bert Webber and Kari Neumeyer of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, June 2012

Coast Salish people in British Columbia belong to “First Nations”; in Washington State they belong to “Tribes”-- only one of many differences that make it a challenge for the Coast Salish people on either side of the border to maintain their common culture. There is an issue however, that transcends the political boundary: the preservation and restoration of the Salish Sea natural resources on which the Coast Salish culture depends.

This desire to preserve, protect and manage the resources of the Salish Sea brought together the 77 different Washington Tribes and BC First Nations who on or beside the Salish Sea to form the Coast Salish Gathering.

The CoastSalishGathering is clear about its goal. That is; to participate in co-management of the resources of the Salish Sea.

Co-management means that tribal and First Nation governments work with federal, state/province and local governments in an equal partnership on how resource decisions are made. Consultation is not enough. In western Washington, the 20 tribes whose treaty-reserved fishing rights were upheld by the 1974 Boldt Decision created the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission to assist them in co-managing natural resources with state and federal governments. The NWIFC provides broad policy coordination as well as high-quality technical and support services for its memeber tribes. The NWIFC serves as a clearinghouse for information on natural resources managment issues important to member tribes. The commission also serves as a forum for tribes to address issues of shared concern, and enables the tribes to speak with a unified voice.

Jump to sections below:

Treaty Rights and the Boldt Decision

What’s Ahead?

Related Articles

Treaty Rights from 1855 and the Boldt Decision part 1

In western Washington, co-management evolved from treaty rights reserved by tribes in the 1855-56 treaties signed, negotiated by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens, who represented the U.S. government. Article 5 of the treaties reserves tribal fishing rights. Read Article 5 in the Point Elliott Treaty.

For more background on Indian treaty rights, see a summary of Stephan Pevars’ book on THE FEDERAL-TRIBAL TRUST RELATIONSHIP: ITS ORIGIN, NATURE, AND SCOPE.

Washington State was formed in 1889 some 34 years after the 1855 treaties. Despite provisions of the treaties that reserved the tribal right to fish in all "usual and accustomed" fishing places, the state began harassing and arresting tribal members who fished beyond the boundaries of their small reservations. In the 1960's and early 1970’s, tribal members began a campaign of civil disobedience to have their treaty-reserved rights recognized by the state and upheld by the federal government.

The decade of the 70’s was a tumultuous time in Indian country. What started in the early 1970 as “Fish In” protests by tribal members continued as the “fish wars” that persisted for most of the decade.

Federal Judge George Boldt clarified the intent of the treaties in 1974, ruling in favor of the tribes in U.S. v. Washington, a judgment known as the Boldt Decision. Boldt ruled that the treaties reserved the tribal right to half the harvestable salmon returning to their usual and accustomed fishing areas in western Washington. The ruling also established the tribes as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state of Washington.

One of the Indian activists who repeatedly got arrested for illegal fishing is Billy Frank Jr., a member of the Nisqually Tribe. Frank is now one of the most respected and effective Indian leaders in the State of Washington. He is a long time leader of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and works tirelessly to implement Indian treaty rights and to explain treaty rights to non Indians. His life is described in this video:

The Boldt decision part 1 relates to the division of fish stocks. However there is a second part of the Boldt decision. Essentially Boldt part 2 means that because the harvest of fish is a treaty-reserved right, it follows that there is also a treaty right to an environment healthy enough to sustain fish stocks. While Boldt Part 2 has not been fully adjudicated, the treaty right is clear.

In 2007 the treaty tribes won a summary judgment in the Culvert Case filed against the State of Washington over hundreds of failing, fish-blocking culverts. Nearly 2,000 culverts under state roads block more than 250,000 salmon annually. The tribes are awaiting a final ruling in the case. See more about the “culvert case” here: (particularly near the end) and here:

The effect of the Salish Sea name cannot be underestimated on the empowerment of Indian Tribes. The recognition of the Salish Sea name by non-Indians is of major importance to the Coast Salish people who are searching for a common management strategy to protect and restore the resources of the Salish Sea.

In Washington State the basis of the Tribes push for co management is the Boldt decision, which was an interpretation of the 1855 treaties. The Coast Salish in British Columbia do not have similar treaties. However a series of Canadian Supreme Court rulings has put Coast Salish First Nations in a very similar situation to Washington State Tribes. Both BC and Washington Indians are searching for a common management strategy for the resources of the Salish Sea.

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What’s Ahead?

How these tribal efforts play out in the future, is to us, the most interesting of natural resource management issues. The Salish Sea name has had a significant impact on the empowerment of the Coast Salish and the recognition of the Salish Sea name by non-Indians is of major importance to the Coast Salish.

What’s ahead? Uncertainty. How we proceed is an important issue. Billy Frank Jr was asked the question of what’s ahead. He sees Indians and non Indians living around the Salish Sea for many generations and needing to talk to each other and to trust each other. Hear his words at:

The Coast Salish Tribes and First Nations through the Coast Salish Gathering adopted the Salish Sea some years ago, and deserve the credit for being first. In 2009 and 2010 State Provincial and Federal levels of US and Canadian Governments formally adopted the Salish Sea name. That all the people (seven million of us) that live and around the Salish Sea now have a common name for this resource will help provide a foundation for resource management of this ecosystem we call home.

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Related Articles

The federal EPA has developed guidelines to take into account Indian treaty rights. However they are not at this point prepared to meet the Coast Salish view of co-management. See the Guidelines at:

See in particular:

Chapter 2, Part II. History of Federal Indian Law, (section 3 Foundation of Federal Indian Law…)

Chapter 2, Part III. Tribal Sovereignty and Jurisdiction

Chapter 2, Part V. Distinctive Tribal Rights; see in particular (B Land Rights, C Fishing Hunting and Gathering Rights, and D. Water Quantity Rights)

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Page Updated 07.13.2012