Washington tribes win major fishing rights decision at appeals court

These salmon died because they were blocked by a barrier culvert. Photo from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Tribes in Washington are celebrating after a federal appeals court ruled in their favor in a long-running treaty rights case.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday held that the state has been violating treaties that were signed in 1854 and 1855 by failing to fix hundreds of culverts that prevent salmon from returning to usual and accustomed tribal fishing places. The decision from a panel of three judges was unanimous.

"Washington has violated, and is continuing to violate, its obligation to the tribes under the treaties," Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for the court.

The ruling affirms a federal judge who ordered the state to fix more than 800 culverts in order to allow free passage for salmon. The effort has been estimated to cost at least $2.4 billion and take 17 years to complete although those figures were disputed by the court as being too high and unrealistic.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Oral Arguments in US v. Washington October 15, 2015

"Washington’s cost estimates are not supported by the evidence," wrote Fletcher as he noted that the federal government is contributing funds for the effort.

Whatever the cost, tribes say fixing the culverts will benefit all citizens in the state. From fishermen to consumers, salmon are a key part of the culture and economy in the region.

Our Northwest salmon are keystone species. They are critically important to the survival of other species, healthy habitat, and an overall healthy environment,” Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Nation and the president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said in a press release.

The culverts dispute is an extension of the long-running U.S. v Washington case. In a historic decision in 1974, the late Judge George Hugo Boldt held that tribes in the state were entitled to half of the entire catch under their treaties.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
US v. Washington (June 27, 2016)

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