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The Salmon Who's Who ...


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Spencer B. Beebe

Natalie Fobes

Billy Frank Jr.

Tom Jay

Jim Lichatowich

Sara Mall Johani

Thomas Quinn

Ray Troll


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Judge George Hugo Boldt


The 1974 Bolt Decision is one of the most important events in modern Northwest Coast salmon history. Judge George Bolt, Federal District Judge for Western Washington was an Eisenhower appointee, and solid Republican conservative. Yet he surprised most people with his momentous decision.


A little background is in order.


For over 120 years the rights of Native American tribes (simply referred to as “Indians” back in the 60’s and 70’s) to catch salmon and other fish went unresolved. Treaty language from the 1850’s stated “Indians shall have the right to fish in common with white men.” Yet, the State of Washington largely ignored this, as it favored non-Indian commercial, recreational and cannery fishing interests. During the 1930’s the fight was between the very efficient (and largely cannery owned) “fixed gear” fisheries (traps, fish wheels, pound and set nets) and the mobile boat gear fisheries (trollers, gill-netters). The fixed gear fishery was extremely efficient and deemed responsible for declining runs, thus it was banned from Washington and Oregon in the 1930’s.


This gave the green light to the gill-netters and trollers, largely non-Indian commercial fishermen. Free of competiton, they doubled their numbers during the 1950’s and 60’s (and political influence), while the Puget Sound salmon fishery catch fell by 50%. Less fish increased the tension always present between fishing interests, State management agencies, and Tribes. The State responded by increasing hatchery production. Fishermen continued to overfish. Native Americans continued to be ignored, arrested, and blamed.


Things came to a head when the State of Washington moved to ban Indian fishing outright in 1964. State Fisheries and Game argued that declining runs were the result of Indian overfishing along key spawning rivers, not poor management and commercial overfishing of stocks before they even reached the rivers. Tribal members didn’t take this sitting down. They had discovered that, while the Stater seemed to want to unilaterally exit from its earlier treaty obligations, the Federal courts were more open to their point of view. Over the next five years there were arrests, protests, court cases and considerable press coverage.


By 1970, the Federal Government decided to intervene, filing a massive law suit, United States vs. Washington in Federal District Court for Western Washington in Tacoma. Judge George Boldt would preside over the case. He was charged with the looking at the salmon conflict between Indians and the State from the beginning treaties, and rectifying some of the wrongs. This was a big mandate, and Boldt did not take it lightly.


He heard over three yeas of testimony, and on February 12th, 1974, he came up with his ruling that would transform salmon fishing in the West. Boldt couldn’t ignore the fact that the States case for Indians being responsible for the declining fish runs had no basis, State management practices and commercial fishing intensity were clearly the culprits. What is quite interesting is how Judge Boldt came up with his 50% rule, where Tribes were entitled to fully half of the allowable catch.


As noted above, treaty language from the 1850’s states that “Indians shall have the right to fish in common with white men.” Boldt referred to an 1828 Webster’s Dictionary to better understand what the phrase “in common with” meant back then. “Divide equally with” is what it said. Judge Boldt interpreted this to mean 50% for Tribes and 50% for everyone else, commercial and sport fisheries.


Boldt’s decision did not immediately change things. The State and commercial and recreational fishermen tried at every turn to ignore, undermine and challenge it. When they tried to argue that hatchery fish were exempt from the ruling, in 1975 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Boldt’s decision in its entirety, as did the Supreme Court.


Still the State and commercial fishing interests continued to fight the ruling during a time which has come to be called “the salmon wars”. Judge Boldt was reviled, local bumper stickers saying “Save Our Salmon, Can Judge Bolt” were popular. When the Washington State Supreme Court, in 1978, ruled that Fisheries and Game could not enforce any aspect of the Boldt decision, Bolt responded by ordering a Federal seizure of the Indian portion of the catch, and eventually ordering all commercial fishing to cease. Again, Boldt and his decision prevailed.


Still, things changed slowly as Tribes increased their share of the catch and were given more power and influence in salmon harvesting and management.


While the Boldt decision did help resolve long-standing questions regarding salmon management and how the harvest is divided up, it did not address fundamental issues regarding the decline of wild salmon populations.


Maybe we need a new Judge Boldt, one that looks at the case from the salmon point of view.


Judge George Hugo Boldt died in 1984.