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Economic Renaissance on the Columbia River

by Staff
Indian Country, August 30, 2004

Traditionally, chinook salmon are caught with nets from wooden platforms on the Columbia River. (Photos courtesy Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission) If thatís the case, then why do consumers practically line up to buy Copper River Salmon for $20 to $30 a pound in the groceries while Columbia River tribal fishers only get from under a dollar to $4 a pound on river bank sales?

Supply. Demand. Marketing. And ice - flaked ice. Even as these variables figure in to a long history of disenfranchisement, they also point to a new era, a tribal renaissance on the Columbia.

The ice, of course, is critical. And not hard-edged cubed ice that bruises the fish. Buyers want the fishers to use nice flaked ice in which the catch can hold without losing quality.

"Alaska trolls provide on-boat ice," said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commissionís (CRITFC) director of operation and finance, and member of the Nez Perce tribe, Jon Matthews. "And weíre looking at what other fisheries do and seeing where we can adapt. The idea is that from the time fishers check their net or scaffold, that they handle the fish with care. Ice as soon as possible. Donít grab by the tails. Bleed the fish. Treat their catches so that consumers feel safe. So that consumers can see we fish with care."

But itís supply thatís really beginning to turn heads toward tribally caught Columbia River salmon. Even before the dams went up on the Columbia between the 1930s and 1970s, Indian fishers were elbowed out of their "in common Ö usual and accustomed places." And while they were brushing the tribes aside, Anglo fishers practically strained the salmon from the river with their fishwheels during the early 1900s in the heyday of the canned salmon industry. To add insult to injury, most of the hatcheries built in the Columbia Basin to compensate for losses to the fishery from the dams were constructed on the lower river where most of the non-tribal fisheries are. Finally, the last stronghold, Celilo Falls, was flooded by The Dalles Dam in 1957. As the once great fishing and trading center slipped beneath the water, so too did the hopes of Indian fishers on the Columbia.

But, the tribes never gave up on a lifeway that supported them since time immemorial.

And in the 1970s when mainstream American society felt flush enough from the post-World War II era to share, courts in the Northwest finally upheld tribal access to fisheries. Since the revolutionary decisions, Columbia River tribes have been coming back into their own. They have developed professional fishery management capabilities and worked to get their fair share of harvests, to influence hydropower management, to supplement runs throughout the riverís tributaries with hatchery stocks and to restore degraded fish habitat.

The upshot of past three decades is that tribal harvests have increased. "Increases in spring chinook run sizes in the past four years have allowed the re-establishment of commercial fishing opportunities for the tribes," CRITFC harvest management biologist, Stuart Ellis explained. "Prior to that time the runs were so low that only ceremonial and subsistence harvests were permitted." All the court battles and studies and analyses are beginning to point to a pay off. Beginning to point to a scenario in which Indian fishers will no longer be reduced to poverty, but perhaps, instead enjoy the vibrant quality of life once theirs as fishers on the Columbia.

"I think weíre moving in the right direction and am really excited about it," CRITFC business specialist and member of the Warm Springs tribe, Kahseuss Jackson said. Jacksonís great grandfather, Charlie Jackson, fished for salmon on the Columbia. "Itís kind of ironic that Iím in a position to work with tribal fishers and be involved in this whole salmon marketing thing," Jackson added. "Since my great grandfather did that."

So how will the Columbia tribes start improving the way they care for their catch and developing marketing opportunities for the salmon? Certainly not with the $12 million that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute uses, $2.6 million of which is appropriated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Instead, CRITFC has a $39,000 grant from the USDA, money that Matthews said the organization is using to "evaluate the feasibility of a commercial processing center and develop marketing plans."

CRITFC also envisions subsidized ice machines at central locations within the tribal fishery. "If all goes well, we should have an ice machine in place by spring near the The Dalles where all the fishers can access it," Matthews added. "And once the commercial processing center is built there will be ice there too.

"One of the problems weíve had is that weíve been at the bottom of the market chain and sold our fish to wholesalers. Weíre trying to get more involved in adding value to our fish so that we can get a larger share of the dollars."

Matthews refers to heading, gutting and icing the fish for buyers that go out to the Columbia from Portland, Astoria and Seattle. He also noted that the tribes are partnering with Ecotrust and Oregon State Food Innovation to market their own specialty products including smoked salmon.

"We are definitely looking at high-end markets in Portland like New Seasons and Zuppans and Wild Oats," said Jackson. "Itís a matter of the fishers developing the capacity to approach and offer quality product on a consistent basis. Once they can do that, they should be able to take advantage of this market, and itís a great one."

Indeed, high-end markets in Portland and around the Northwest are precisely those where Copper River salmon is sought by consumers. But once the educated, buy-local crowd finds out that the fish right outside their own door is actually superior to the Alaskan variety, and that theyíve fallen prey to a well-funded advertising campaign, purchasers are bound to pick up the fish closer to home.

And thatís a point Matthews underscores. Thereís a story behind the Columbia River salmon. Itís a cultural story about the tribes and their will to endure. Similarly, itís a story about the fish and their fight against formidable odds. Itís a story about a renaissance. About completing a cycle and coming home to where youíve always been.

Economic Renaissance on the Columbia River
Indian Country, August 30, 2004

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