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Washington Tribe Trolls for Fish Sticks

By Julie WhippleSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1995



NEAH BAY, WASH.

A TINY Makah Indian village clinging to a rocky knob on the Washington coast has gone trolling with a treaty.

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The Makah are going after whiting - the fish used in fish sticks and fast food ''fishwiches'' - and the haul could be huge. Other tribes in Washington State have used 150-year-old treaties to carve out a share in today's lucrative salmon and coastal shellfish markets. But the Makah are legally and literally moving into deeper waters - claiming their traditional fishing grounds extend up to 100 miles offshore.

The move is the latest effort by native Americans to assert natural-resource rights granted in pacts with European settlers. But it puts this tribe of 2,200 Indians sharply at odds with commercial fisherman up and down the Northwest Coast at a time when stocks here and worldwide are being seriously depleted.

''We're like curs fighting for garbage scraps. It's demeaning to all of us,'' says Barry Fisher of the 40-vessel Mid-Water Trawlers Cooperative. But the fishermen are not backing off. ''We pioneered the fishery when no one else had faith in it. It was developed by Oregonians and we'll be [darned] if they're going to take it a way,'' says Mr. Fisher.

Commercial fisherman are balking at the Makah's claim on 25,000 metric tons of whiting or ''hake'' caught off the Oregon coast next year. That's roughly equivalent to a 25 to 40 percent stake in the entire United States harvest of whiting, according to Jim Glock, fishery management coordinator for the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) in San Francisco.

Carson Boysen, cultural information officer of the 20-tribe Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., says tribes are exercising their treaty rights now for several reasons, including concerns over federal budget cuts and dwindling natural resources, but mostly because ''it's taken this long to establish the treaty share.''

The ''treaty share'' was set in 1974 when the federal government went to court on behalf of 14 tribes against the state of Washington and won a landmark case known as the Boldt decision. The ruling, covering salmon, said that native Americans are entitled to 50 percent or an ''equal share'' of the fish caught in the tribe's ''usual and accustomed grounds and stations.''

Court rulings since then have almost unanimously supported tribal treaty claims. Earlier this year, the ''equal share'' principle was further reaffirmed and expanded in Washington when 16 native American tribes won another controversial case - currently under appeal - to harvest up to 50 percent of the state's $52 million coastal shellfish resource.

Unlike other neighboring inland and coastal tribes with claims to intertidal and freshwater species, the Makah are historically an ocean-going tribe.

According to Dan Greene, the soft-spoken director of the Makah Fisheries Management, in the mid-1800s, Makah fishermen piloted 30-foot open canoes along the coast from the Columbia River to the Bering Sea and often as far as 100 miles into the ocean.

Claiming treaty rights, Mr. Greene says, is also another step toward regaining influence over the management of what tribes see as badly mishandled natural resources. ''We have a responsibility to our grandkids to make sure the ocean is still abundant.''

But commercial fishermen want a stake for their grandchildren too. They didn't vigorously contest earlier Makah claims to halibut and black cod set asides. But Fisher says the whiting fishery will be different. It's the line in the sand that will lead all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, he declares. ''We fundamentally don't believe they [the Makah] should be given anything.''

Whiting has always been seen as a low-cost ''trash'' fish,'' he contends, and was only first established as a fishery in the mid-'70s. The investment by commercial fisherman is now paying off in a fishery worth millions of dollars that is an important part of the economy of Pacific coast communities.

The PFMC is expected to make a decision on the Makah claim today.