Is Governor’s Plan Enough?

Hand-packing cans with salmon at Pacific American Fisheries, Harris Avenue, 1906 Photo by Asahel Curtis, Whatcom Museum

This past month, Washington governor Jay Inslee announced his strategic plan for saving two of the most iconic symbols of the Pacific Northwest — the powerful, graceful south resident orca, and one of its primary sources of food, the mighty and much-prized chinook salmon. Both populations have suffered for decades from man-made environmental stresses that now threaten their very existence. The local orca population is now at its lowest in more than 30 years, with a limited number of reproductive-age males and some reproductive-age females who are not calving for uncertain reasons. Chinook salmon are faring no better. In 1999, Puget Sound chinook and coastal chinook were listed as threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Inslee’s proposed multi-faceted “fix” took a measure of courage. Leadership always does. His plan includes $363 million “for salmon recovery, culvert removal, water quality and water supply projects” to enhance statewide salmon survival generally, as well as additional funding and regulatory changes to reduce toxins, pollutants, noise and vessel traffic. The comprehensive approach will no doubt be controversial. Implicit within his decision, however, is the calculus that saving these two cultural symbols is worth the political capital and putting his “green” legacy as governor at risk.


The elephant is in the room. Let’s give the elephant a proper name.

The human race has seldom been forced to sacrifice to protect Mother Nature. For the most part, we take her resiliency for granted, abusing her air, her water, and her land, all in the name of economic growth or due to indifference. In our arrogance, we believe that we are infallible, able to plan for every contingency. But we aren’t, and we can’t. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is the most painful example.

If we are candid with ourselves, our failure to act responsibly as stewards is largely explained by pure self-interest and an unwillingness to sacrifice our lifestyles. We know better — we just expect the next generations to pay the price for our selfishness. Is this assessment harsh? Perhaps, but the assessment is an honest start to an overdue self-critical discussion. We have become dishonest “can kickers” with a moral backbone that bends all too frequently more than it should.

Our children and grandchildren deserve better. But is Inslee’s proposal too little, too late? When the plan was announced, many asked, “What took so long?” and “Does his plan go far enough?” Others question whether rebuilding the orca and chinook salmon populations is worth the sacrifice and expense.

Still others, specifically the whale-watching industry, feel the burden of the proposed fixes falls disproportionately on their shoulders because Governor Inslee proposes a temporary three-year suspension on whale watching — a virtual death knell to their businesses. Why is there no equivalent moratorium proposed for the taking of chinook salmon by commercial, recreational, and tribal fishermen, or upon those destroying salmon habitat? Where is the fairness in Inslee’s plan? Don’t others deserve more blame?

All are legitimate questions. To find the answers, back to kindergarten we go, where we learned right from wrong.

Barge of salmon free for the taking, c. 1905 Photo by J. Wayland Clark, Whatcom Museum


Similar questions were asked in 1967, when our national symbol, the bald eagle, faced extinction due to the widespread use of DDT and encroachment on their habitat.

The threshold question then was not one of economics or cost or even the “blame game.” It was a moral issue, i.e., were we willing to sacrifice and change our relationship with Mother Nature for a bird? Our answer then was yes, and for the most part, we placed the issue of individual blame (e.g., farmers’ use of DDT) to the side. In essence, the price to be paid was the price to be paid, no matter who was impacted — and we paid it. That recovery is a proud success story.

The plight of the local orca and chinook salmon populations presents a similar moral challenge — collectively, do we have the resolve and political will to fix what we broke? But today’s crisis is vastly worse; the economics are night and day in comparison. The collective cost to save our national symbol then is different today by orders of magnitude. Why?

First, the cost then was decidedly lower in terms of economic impact, foregone opportunity costs, and disruption. For example, many more are reliant upon salmon for their livelihoods than bald eagles, while protecting the life cycle of salmon and its habitat is more complex. Inslee’s proposed fix, therefore, is very costly by necessity, and it is arguably more disruptive of the economic status quo than the fix for the bald eagle. The moving parts — salmon habitat, hatcheries, competing private and public interests, and water quality — are pervasive statewide concerns that affect us all. The price to be paid is simply higher.

And second, the number of direct financial stakeholders who deserve a voice in today’s debate is also greater, leading to secondary questions: Is there a financial limit to our resolve, or perhaps more importantly, should there be a financial limit? And should the price of the “fix” be equitably shared amongst stakeholders if equity won’t save the orcas and chinook salmon? Or will some stakeholder have to pay a disproportional price for lesser culpability?

Our challenge is clear. Do we have the collective appetite required to save two iconic species that, for many, define the essence of our cultural heritage? If our local orcas and chinook salmon used Twitter, we know their response: #MeToo and #AboutTime. The open question is what will ours be?


We have only ourselves to blame.

The current crisis pits the majority of stakeholders against each other — non-Natives against local tribes, commercial fishermen against sports fishermen, Canada against the U.S., the tourism industry against perhaps all others, and even the public sector against the private sector. But it wasn’t always so. The local orca and chinook salmon thrived here for centuries upon centuries.

What changed? Everything.

In the early 1850s, there were no stakeholders in the health of the local orca and chinook salmon stock (other than chinook salmon and local orca themselves). Roughly 10,000 people inhabited the Northwest. Native Americans comprised three-quarters of this population. Most salmon were caught, consumed or traded to the early, predominantly European, settlers by the Natives. An abundance of fish provided for all. The local orca ate well.

The U.S. government created the first, and perhaps the most important, stakeholder in today’s debate in 1854 and 1855. In anticipation of an influx of non-Indian settlers and a possible transcontinental railroad, the United States empowered Isaac Stevens, the first governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs in the new territory of Washington, to enter into treaties with the Indians west of the Cascades. The timing of this effort to forestall friction was critical because the Land Donation Act of 1850 had caused non-Indians to already claim Indian lands before native title had been extinguished by the creation of “reservations.”

The cultural importance of salmon and orcas to Pacific Northwest Indians, then and now, is undeniable. One needs to look no further than to Pacific Northwest totem poles to appreciate their exalted status in Indian culture. Then, however, both were beyond cultural icons. Salmon, in particular, were absolutely critical to the local tribes’ very survival.

To non-Indians, by contrast, fishing held a considerably lesser degree of importance. Farming, logging, and mining, not fishing, were their primary concerns, because salmon were plentiful and the majority of the non-Natives’ needs for fish were met by Indian trade. Salmon, therefore, were largely non-factors in Governor Stevens’ thinking, i.e., Stevens could give up nothing of value in exchange for critical governmental priorities. Equity and fairness were of no concern to Stevens. He simply had a job to do.

Of course, circumstances changed dramatically in the ensuing years. Life is never static; economic development is seldom environmentally neutral. Nor did Governor Stevens foresee that the commercial value of fishing rights to non-Indians would become a late 1800s and 20th century phenomenon.

By 1974, 3.4 million people lived in Washington — just more than one percent of which were Indians. Cities, towns, dams, and impassable culverts were built. Salmon habitat was destroyed by agricultural, timber and mining interests. Water and air quality were adversely impacted. Even Washington’s hatchery programs significantly contributed to the degradation of wild stocks. In short, unhealthy environmental compromises were routinely made. We were officially on the proverbial slippery slope.

Moreover, by 1974, salmon had become such a highly valuable resource (estimated at $45 million for Washington) that the influx of non-Native fishermen into Washington’s commercial fishing industry had caused the Indians’ percentage of the harvestable fish to decrease to only 2.4 percent of the total commercial catch. Inevitably, the burgeoning commercial fishing industry placed salmon stocks under increased man-made pressure. To no one’s surprise, fish stocks diminished significantly even further since the 1970s.

In retrospect, few local historians and fisheries biologists would dispute that Mother Nature absorbed the brunt of our “progress,” followed closely by the impact on our local tribes. Neither caused the problem, but both continue to suffer for it.


Why is 1974 so important to today’s orca and chinook salmon crisis? Because 1974 gave us a critical legal flashpoint known as the “Boldt Decision,” a federal lawsuit named after the presiding judge, The Honorable George H. Boldt, an Eisenhower appointee. The Boldt Decision, in effect, made decisive action mandatory by Inslee, legally and, many would say, morally.

The suit, brought by the U.S. on behalf of many local tribes against the State of Washington, sought clarification of off-reservation fishing rights as determined by several treaties signed in 1854 and 1855. Boldt ruled that Indians were entitled to 45 to 50 percent of all harvestable fish passing through their traditional fishing grounds. The right was to be exercised in common with non-Indians provided that neither party destroys the resource or pre-empts it totally.

The immediate reach of the Boldt Decision was obvious. The full impact was not. Reverberations continue even today, like earthquake aftershocks. As a consequence of the Boldt Decision, and subsequent state and federal legal challenges by tribes and environmental groups, the reach of the legal underpinnings to the Boldt Decision now extends, amongst other things, to the protection of in-land water resources and salmon habitat. It was the Boldt Decision, for instance, that accelerated Washington’s implementation of a broad array of laws and regulations intended to preserve fish and wildlife, and their critical habitat.

Today, Washington’s legal obligation is well settled. By virtue of the Boldt Decision and later cases, local tribes have first priority rights to harvest chinook salmon, above all other fishermen, and a vital, legally enforceable, stake in proposed public or private activity anywhere that could impact the health of marine life in their usual and accustomed hunting and fishing grounds. This is one of Inslee’s challenges — if fishing moratoriums are ever required to save our local orcas and chinook, our local tribes are exempt unless Washington first exhausts all other preservation measures.

Is this special treaty status equitable today? The question will naturally be asked. With all due respect to today’s non-Native stakeholders, the concept of equity is not a single moment in time. Historical fairness should not become a casualty of this inevitable debate. We need to be mindful that our local tribes pre-paid their sacrifice for today’s crisis in 1854 and 1855, when they agreed under significant duress to move from their ancestral lands to reservations.


The success of Inslee’s plan focuses largely on increasing the supply of chinook salmon for our orcas. Let’s be clear, however — chinook salmon are worthy of being saved separately and independently from our local orcas. Their economic and cultural significance is at least equal to the orca.

While chinook salmon are not the sole source of the orcas’ diet, chinook salmon are the most critical source. If their numbers don’t increase in sufficient quantities, the balance of Governor Inslee’s multi-faceted plan may not matter. The feat is easier said than done. Chinook salmon have been elevated to “threatened” status for almost two decades, such that their lawful harvest is severely limited in comparison to earlier periods when overfishing was commonplace. But nevertheless, their run size today in Washington waters is only 2-8 percent of their historic levels. Why? Well, it’s complicated.

To be fair, not all the causes were controllable by us, making the solution all the more difficult. For instance, evidence is mounting that the Pacific Ocean, where chinook salmon spend three to four years of their life cycles, is changing — and not for the better. Recent studies show that chinook salmon today are significantly shorter and smaller than in years past, attributes that likely result, in part, from adverse changes in ocean conditions and food supply.

Moreover, we do not even have complete control over the harvesting of chinook salmon destined for Washington waters. Commercial, recreational, and tribal fishermen in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia intercept tens of thousands of “our” chinook salmon each year before they are able to return to their home streams and rivers here.

Part of the problem, therefore, is multi-jurisdictional. Ironically, whereas Canada may or may not be willing to sacrifice solely for our sake, the health and viability of orca and chinook salmon populations in British Columbia are under similar stress. There is hope, therefore, for a crossborder partner in the near future. Potentially, we may not succeed without it.

In this sense, Inslee’s plan is commitment to control what we can — now and in the future — by adopting a public policy to span future governorships. The degradation of chinook salmon stock hasn’t happened all at once, and it won’t be fixed overnight. Nor is there a single “silver bullet” answer. Improved habitat is only a partial answer. Improved water quality is only a partial answer. Improved, smarter hatcheries and hatchery practices are only partial answers.


Inslee’s plan is an overdue partial step in the right direction. More will be needed, however, if Mother Nature is to forgive us for our past transgressions.

There is a more painful sacrifice to be made in conjunction with improved habitat, water quality, and hatcheries — and that is a temporary statewide moratorium on the harvesting of chinook salmon by all fisher groups (commercial, tribal and recreational) for at least one life cycle. The time has come. The pied piper has his hand out. Their escapement numbers have dwindled to such critical levels that even if we were able to restore salmon habitat and water quality to their pre-1850s condition, Washington’s chinook salmon stocks may not recover. Chinook salmon are simply not returning to their ancestral spawning grounds in sufficient numbers.

If not now, when and who?

So, yes, let’s rehabilitate salmon habitat, improve water quality, and fix our badly broken hatchery system. But these fixes will take years to show results even if they are wildly successful. We cannot ignore the other side of the “food” equation — the severely diminished escapement of wild stock (which is defined as the amount of chinook salmon that does not get caught by commercial, tribal, and recreational fisheries and returns to their freshwater spawning habitat). Without an effective mechanism to quickly increase escapement, Governor Inslee’s plan may become a largely ineffective “Field of Dreams” approach (“If you build it, he will come”), and potentially wastes tax payer money.

Time is not our friend. We can immediately increase available food and chinook salmon escapement more quickly and efficiently with a phased-in fishing moratorium over a five-year period (i.e., the average chinook salmon life cycle) to prevent their current limited habitat from being overburdened while former habitat is being restored. It is within our power. In 2017, the combined statewide harvest of chinook salmon by commercial (11.5 percent), recreational (38.4 percent), tribal (50.0 percent) fishers was approximately 550,000. Imagine if all had escaped to their ancestral rivers and streams. Imagine if all 550,000 were available to our local orcas to eat now.

As painful as a short-term shutdown of all fisheries would be, especially for tribal and recreational fishermen, our chinook salmon and local orcas don’t care about politics, treaty rights, and financial impact. They know that a temporary fishing moratorium provides the absolute best chance for their survival.

And why take the risk? Why make our local orcas wait three to five years to eat what they need to survive today when chinook salmon are available if all fisheries were temporarily shut down? What if their populations fail while Inslee’s plan is being fully implemented? And what if his plan doesn’t work as well as hoped? Man is fallible.

The answer may be inconvenient, but the answer is clear. Like the bald eagle, however, there’s a price to be paid. Will we pay it now? Or will we kick the can and pay an even higher price in the future when they are extinct?


Equity and fairness are elusive concepts. The whalewatching industry has a legitimate point — their role in the causes of the crisis is minor. Where is the equity? No other industry is being entirely shut down, even temporarily, under Inslee’s plan. Their hardship remains in search of a solution.

Likewise, if a short-term fishing moratorium were implemented, fishermen will be severely impacted and penalized for decades of neglect and indifference toward Mother Nature by our state and federal governments, the private sector, and many of their own ancestors. Plus, our glocal tribes are under no legal compulsion to agree to a moratorium. Their treaty rights are superior.

The answer to these complicated issues may be a simple cost/benefit analysis. Ask ourselves: If our chinook salmon and local orca populations collapse entirely, what would be the value of the permanent cultural, environmental (e.g., the domino effect caused by the extinction of two critical apex predators in the ecosystem), and economic loss to all Washingtonians over the next century, or even a few decades? Intuitively, we know the number dwarfs the economic losses that would be suffered by the whale watching industry, fisher groups, and others if a moratorium were implemented.

Or simply compare the total cost of Inslee’s plan (well in excess of $500 million over a span of years) to the net profits (after deducting for fixed and variable costs) for all chinook salmon harvested by commercial and tribal fisher groups in 2017. This number may be difficult to quantify because tribal fishermen have higher profit margins, but it is likely less than $20 million. An equivalent analysis for the whale watching industry will yield similar results. The point is that the cost of Inslee’s plan is orders of magnitude larger.

This simple example is helpful to illustrate that those impacted by the “missing links” in Governor Inslee’s plan — a temporary moratorium on fishing and immediate enhanced escapement — can be equitably compensated at numbers that make economic sense. If we were to create an Economic Hardship Fund, the burden of the pain from the moratorium “fix” could be fairly spread and minimized. Affected parties could apply for compensation, provide historical harvest records or other financial records to show their past net profits (similar to fishermen who were compensated by Exxon for lost income in 1989 due to the oil spill), and be made substantially whole.

Admittedly, the potential solution is not without challenges. Where would the funds come from (presumably from our state and federal governments)? Why would our local tribes agree to temporarily forego exercising their treaty rights? One would hope they would do what is necessary, not what is legal, because they have perhaps the largest stake in this rescue plan. At least with an Economic Hardship Fund, however, there’s a financial carrot. Plus, who better to hire to help rehabilitate our rivers and streams than those with passion for salmon sustainability — our fishermen? Let’s put them to work.

Governor Inslee, we pay farmers not to plant crops to protect the marketplace. We paid $100 million to induce crab fishermen to retire vessels from the Alaska crab fisheries. Isn’t saving our local orcas and chinook salmon stocks just as important?

For more stories like this, read our Lifestyle article on Connecting Community with Sustainable Salmon by clicking here.

"Collectively, do we have the resolve and political will to fix what we broke?"