On the Columbia, tribal fishermen risk their lives

By Phil Ferolito
Underwood, Washington (AP) July 2010

From their 16-foot fiberglass boat, Bobby Walachumwah and LeeLynn George reached into the Columbia River and began pulling in a 150-foot-long gill net.

A warm breeze cut across the river and the boat pitched in the swells as the pair, outfitted with worn life vests, worked.

They are among roughly 200 Yakama tribal fishermen who are more than willing to take on rough waters and bad weather to practice their treaty fishing rights. “I enjoy doing this,” 52 year-old Walachumwah said with a boyish grin.

“My mom worried and didn’t want me fishing when I was young, so I never got to come out,” said George, 28. “But now I am, and I’m learning a lot. I like it.”

But the risks often bring tragedy.

Over the past decade, at least 11 Yakamas have died while commercially fishing on the Columbia.

That’s a death rate of slightly more than one in every 200 each year, which is more than 120 times greater than the national occupational death rate, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After pulling in the net, Walachumwah motored his boat over two-foot swells. Its nose bounced as he hurriedly cut across the river.

“I’ve got no time with the water like this – it’s coming overboard,” he said, pointing to water sloshing beneath the 70-horsepower engine.

Tribal fishermen are three times more likely than any other group to die in a boating accident on the Columbia River for a number of reasons, said Sgt. Mitch Hicks with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which oversees fisheries and represents tribal interests on the river.

They mostly work from small, stripped-down boats without much horsepower.

They also have to work quickly because of the small windows of time they’re given to fish, usually two and a half days a week.

Often, those windows are marred by harsh winds and rain.

Tribal members are now required to wear life vests, but some don’t. They say the vests inhibit their ability to quickly pull in the nets.

And on the river, time is money.

“It all kind of adds up,” Hicks said.

All of the above were factors in the most recent tragedy, when three Yakamas drowned as their 18-foot fiberglass boat was swamped by rough waters April 30 near the small community of Wishram, Wash. Despite swells of up to eight feet, driven by winds of 40 mph, a fourth fisherman was able to swim to shore.

None were wearing life vests, authorities said.

On that day, rough waters rolled or swamped three other boats on the river, but there were no other fatalities.

Two of the bodies were found the morning the accident occurred; the third surfaced 19 days later.

Now, Simon Sampson, brother of the third drowned fisherman, is working to establish a rescue and recovery plan that would pull all area enforcement agencies – the Yakama Nation, Inter-Tribal and Klickitat and Skamania counties as well as the Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife and the U.S. Coast Guard – into one concerted recovery effort during the first 48 hours of an accident.

“If we had cooperation in the first 48 hours (from all area agencies), we’d have found my brother sooner,” said Sampson, who employs both Walachumwah and George. “The only reason we found him is that his body surfaced.”

A sovereign government, the Yakama Nation regulates its own fisheries – setting seasons and regulatory laws – and polices its own fishermen.

In their 1855 treaty, the Yakamas retained their traditional rights to hunt, fish and gather foods and medicines in their ancestral territories, which once stretched from Oregon to the northern Cascades.

Traditionally, the Yakamas dipped nets from wooden scaffolds anchored to basalt walls and other outcroppings near the river’s edge.

But that changed after dams were erected to provide cheap electricity. River waters rose after being pooled and tribal members began fishing from boats.

Many tribal members have few resources and can’t afford the larger fishing vessels that non-Indian commercial fishermen use, boats with large spools that mechanically reel in nets.

Their fish sales are exempt from state and federal taxes, and they struggle to get bank loans for equipment, Sampson said.

“We don’t have records to verify our income of our catch,” he said. Few, if any, tribal members are getting rich off fishing.

Despite that, tribal members remain poised to carry out their treaty rights to fish.

It goes much deeper than any economic benefit it may bring. Salmon is at the heart of the tribe’s spiritual beliefs.

Oral Yakama teachings describe an ancient agreement between tribal fishermen and the salmon: The salmon promised to return each year if fishermen would catch them, honor them and use them in a good way, said Bill Yallup Jr., one of five Columbia River chiefs.

Salmon are a staple in the tribe’s diet and are honored with traditional feasts each spring on the reservation.

But in order to honor salmon, you must catch them, an agreement that established a dependency on one another – fishermen and salmon, Yallup said.

“That’s why we’re fishermen, we’re needed,” he said. “Without us, it all disappears.”

It’s a commitment that isn’t taken lightly, he said.

“Even if it means you lose your life.”