The next time a fisherman tells you he let that big one get away you might congratulate him on his sustainability practice. The bigger the fish that got away the better, as indicated by the research publicized by OSU professor Mark Hixon, multi-award winning marine biologist. It seems that fishing folklore that enshrines the wily old fish too smart to be caught had something to it. As the research cited by Hixon indicates, larger and older female fish need protection in offshore reserves, since they are the ones most likely to breed-as well as to pass on the best survival genes.
Hixon is at the forefront of scientific research, but as chair of the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, he grappled with the distressing anti-science mentality of the recent Bush US administration. He is not alone. The results of the survey released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that over half of the 1600 EPA professionals who filled out the Union’s detailed questionnaire reported incidents of political interference in their work, in which they were pressured by superiors to skew their findings.
If he worked as a knowledgeable elder whose job was to oversee the delicate balance of human and natural (spiritual) resources in traditional Northern California, Hixon would have had more community authority and support. Yurok/Klamath elder Lucy Thompson explained the “laws of the fish dam” overseen by traditional leaders in a book she self published in 1916. In a report confirmed by an anthropological study, she explained how traditional fish traps were open on one side to allow a number of salmon to escape upriver. The shaman also mandated that the trap could only be used for a short period of time, after which was taken down so that the entire run could pass to its spawning grounds.
Thompson noted that US conservation laws had gone into effect on the Klamath River, but they weren’t working very well. These laws prohibited nets from stretching all the way across the river, but because they only applied to individuals, they didn’t take into consideration the overall picture, which yielded a gauntlet of nets very few salmon could make it through.
Without a more comprehensive conservation policy, she predicted that the young California society would not protect the salmon resources as her people had done for thousands of years.
Throughout the Northwest, native spokespeople for those that US culture rendered “voiceless’, as Siletz spiritual elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim puts it, spoke out on behalf of the salmon. In 1846 a Chinook representative at the mouth of the Columbia told treaty negotiator Anson Dart his people would not sign until the pioneer commercial activity that disturbed the salmon was removed from the mouth of the river.
His plea was ignored, though earlier fur traders like Alexander Ross, who was reliant on native resources and good will, could not ignore native strictures for taking the salmon with care and respect. They were strictures which native peoples all over the Northwest held the early whites to. Fur traders on the Columbia as well as on Grays Harbor and Puget Sound encountered native protest against the pioneer method of fishing, which seemed bent on “catching them all”– even if they couldn’t use them.
In the early 1900s, Henry Cultee witnessed a fish cannery operation that blockaded the Humptulips and backed up the salmon so thickly they couldn’t be canned fast enough to keep them all from spoiling. Thus the canners hired scows to tow boatloads of the rotted fish out to sea to dump them. “It would have done a lot of good”, Cultee remarked, if they had let these salmon run upriver instead.
Letting some go was the perennial strategy of the native people wherever the salmon ran in the Pacific Northwest, out of courtesy to the people upriver as well as out of fundamental respect for the salmon themselves. The native strategy resulted in the fish runs so prolific they “embarrassed” pioneer Ezra Meeker on Puget Sound, who could hardly move his boat through the millions of salmon he encountered in such a run there. In one Columbia River camp in 1805, Lewis and Clark counted 107 bundles of salmon that Clark estimated to weigh ten thousand pounds. Altogether, the fifty thousand Indians who lived along the Columbia took an estimated forty-two million pounds of salmon a year from the great river of the West. Notably, this take was at least seven times the contemporary harvest. This stunning pre-contact catch harmed neither the abundance nor sustainability of the salmon runs.
This did not happen accidentally. Native fishing practices were governed by the belief that the salmon were kin with whom humans could and should engage in interpersonal partnerships. This partnership has recently been re-asserted by Takelma-Siletz elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker. Others, like Nisqually elder Billy Frank Jr., have worked for years with Washington state officials and other fisherman to protect salmon resources in western Washington.
Grandma Aggie’s own work is paying off. Salmon runs have been coming back along the Applegate and Rogue Rivers, the traditional territory of her ancestors and the site of the salmon ceremony she recently revived. Her spirituality is linked to pragmatic action– “walking your talk”. She expresses satisfaction that the dam will soon be coming off the Applegate River just upriver from the salmon ceremony site–and another dam is coming off the Rogue shortly thereafter. She worked on a local citizen committee to help bring this about.
Letting the best go for the future was not only a strategy applied to the salmon. In the Willamette Valley, a pioneer witnessed a traditional Kalapuya hunt in which the people encircled the deer. Before they took any, they let the biggest and strongest go. This is the opposite strategy from hunting the biggest deer or elk to place its “rack” on a wall.
But the indigenous peoples who lived sustainably in the Northwest for thousands of years had the time and inclination to learn from nature. Theirs was not an attitude of domination of the natural world– or of gaining the trophies to express this. Instead, they worked to establish a reciprocal partnership with the other natural beings who share our lives.
That is as simple and wise a strategy as saving the best seeds for future crops– or passing on a better world for our children and their children.
To get involved in saving the Northwest’s fish resources:
Locally, OSPRIG’s campaign supporting marine reserves in Oregon is coordinated here. UNESCO has a recent report on the importance of local knowledge in sustaining fisheries.
Update: in 2009, the Oregon Legislature approved a bill to protect two offshore areas as marine reserves.
For a detailed scholarly report of the environmental strategies of the indigenous peoples of California, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild.
An analysis of traditional indigenous ecological practices in the Pacific Northwest is here.
You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden.
Feel free to contact me if you wish to copy it in any other form than a link to this page. Thanks.
Filed under: Animals, Contrasting worldviews, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Indigenous links, Northwest History and Culture, Our Earth and Ourselves, worldviews | Tagged: comparative worldviews, environmental philosophy, Henry Cultee, Indigenous environmental knowledge, Kalapuya, Klamath River, marine reserves, sustainable fishing |