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Tribal fishers embrace a tradition

Harvesters ply an age-old practice in the Columbia River

The wind was starting to whip across the Columbia River and the whitecaps were building, but the smile on Clarence Tahkeal's face just got bigger each time his boat slammed into a new wave.

Tahkeal, a 32-year-old Yakama Indian who has been fishing the Columbia since age 10, got his first chance to harvest summer chinook salmon this week. He spent three days out on the river with his friend Leo Durant, 31, hopping into the water to secure lines, hauling in nets by hand, cracking jokes and telling stories the whole time.

Tahkeal and Durant, both of whom are between jobs, had not been born the last time Columbia River tribal fishermen were allowed to catch summer chinooks with gill nets, in 1965. The two reported that they felt right at home on the water.

'I grew up on the river,' said Durant, who works on and off as a logger and a lumber mill employee when he's not fishing. 'That's what I like, being out on the river. It just feels right out there.'

Fishery officials permitted the three-day opening because the summer chinooks, like many badly diminished Columbia fish species, have been recovering.

Fishers from the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs tribes were allowed to harvest up to 6,000 of the recovering fish because they have treaty rights dating to 1855. That was the year when the Yakamas and other Northwest tribes ceded most of their land claims in exchange for the right to fish in their 'usual and accustomed fishing places.'

Those treaty rights have been upheld several times in court, but not everyone thinks they should apply to the modern world, with its outboard motors and gill nets. Tribal fisheries enforcement officers say sports fishermen often yell at them about the impact of the gill nets, which are left overnight in the river and snare large numbers of passing fish.

The fish that Tahkeal and Durant caught this week had migrated thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean before returning to their place of birth in the river basin. They had survived the river's hydropower dams, the ocean's predators, fishing nets and countless other barriers.

Once there were millions

According to National Geographic, in the early 1800s between 10 million and 16 million salmon made the annual migration up the Columbia. Salmon were at the center of the economy, diet and culture of the 100,000 or so native people who lived in the area long before there was a Portland.

The numbers of both Native Americans and salmon have plummeted in the past century and a half. With the tribes, the culprits were mostly diseases imported from Europe. The fish, meanwhile, fell prey to a combination of factors, including the 14 dams on the Columbia River, overfishing and the deterioration of natural habitat as a result of logging, farming and urban development.

The salmon numbers have been bouncing back, however. Fishery officials had predicted that 87,600 summer chinooks would run up the Columbia this year, but that number was exceeded by July 7. The new forecast calls for 120,000 summer chinook this year, compared with about 15,000 a decade ago.

Depending on how the run shapes up, tribal fishermen may get another shot to fish for summer chinooks next week. Fishery managers are meeting today to make that determination.

Tahkeal is hoping he'll get another opportunity to fish. After three days of setting nets, hauling and cleaning and selling fish, his energy level had not diminished in the slightest by Wednesday evening.

'It's coming back,' Tahkeal said of the fishery. 'I hope it's coming back. Any chance we get to catch fish, we'll take it. Bad weather, wind, whatever, we'll take it.'

Tahkeal's uncle, Clifford Alexander, recalled when tribal fishers could get by on fishing alone. 'I don't know if you could call it a living,' he said. 'We were existing.'

Alexander, 65, has been fishing the Columbia for 55 years. He raised his family in a cabin he built near the river at Cooks Landing, not far from the Bonneville Dam.

The fishing facilities at Cooks Landing were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to compensate for fishing grounds that were flooded by dams built on the Columbia.

Today, the area is cluttered with out-of-commission pickup trucks and half-sunk boats, dilapidated fish shacks and heaps of gill nets. Dogs and barefoot children run around, playing and jumping into the river. A washing stand for cleaning fish is ripe with the smell of fish blood.

As Alexander reminisced, a friend asked him if he had a vacuum packer for his fish. 'Naw, I can't afford it,' he said.

Working together

The gill netters working out of Cooks Landing run a pretty makeshift, communal operation. They share knives, gill nets, information and fish totes, and even sell one another's fish.

When Tahkeal and his partner, Mike Brisbois, needed an anchor for one of their nets, they had Durant pull the boat to the bank, and they jumped knee-deep into the river to grab a sizable rock and drop it onto the bow. Another time, when Tahkeal couldn't find a good place to secure a net on the shore, he tied it to an old chunk of railroad steel that had been left there.

For Tahkeal and Durant, the biggest haul on Wednesday consisted of 18 fat chinooks, three smaller steelheads and a prehistoric-looking 4-foot sturgeon. Durant's girlfriend, Mary Kuneki, 26, helped them pull in the net and pile the fish on deck. Then they raced their catch back to the dock through a nasty chop and looked around for a while for a knife sharpener and a fish tote.

With help from Durant's sister Amy, who is Tahkeal's girlfriend, they gutted and cleaned the fish, loaded them into a pickup truck and hauled them off to sell for $2.50 per pound.

Tahkeal and Durant said that if they had their way, they would do this sort of work full time and year-round. They're hoping that the runs will continue to improve, and elders such as Alexander predict that they may.

'The fishing's been getting better,' Alexander said. 'We're getting back almost to where we were before.'

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