Tribal Fishing & Co-Management

WDFW & Tribal Fisheries Management

Since tribal and non-tribal fishers impact the fishing resources over much of the state, it is important that WDFW and the tribes work cooperatively to develop management strategies that can meet the needs of both. This process is complicated because tribal and non-tribal fisheries are steeped in different philosophies, traditions and cultural heritages.

Many tribal governments take an active role in the management of fish resources. Most tribes with off-reservation fishing rights have a tribal fish committee that meets to develop regulations and management strategies. Many tribes have staff biologists that can advise them on the development of management approaches. Tribes have taken the lead in several areas on research projects to gather the information that is needed to better manage fish resources. WDFW and various tribes have worked together to develop management plans for key fish populations. WDFW has also worked cooperatively with tribes to rebuild or augment populations that are below desired levels.

WDFW staff from the Director’s Office, Fish, and Enforcement programs meet with tribal representatives to discuss fishing issues. For salmon fisheries each year state, federal and tribal fishery managers gather to plan the Northwest's recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. This series of public meetings between state, tribal, federal and industry representatives and other concerned citizens is known as the North of Falcon process. The North of Falcon planning process includes meetings of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PMFC), where ocean commercial and sport salmon seasons are set.

What is Co-Management?
Co-management is a term used to describe the government-to-government relationship between the state of Washington and the Indian tribes whose rights were established in treaties signed by the federal government in the 1850’s. It is also used to describe state-tribal management of salmon, steelhead, groundfish, and shellfish in the Northwest.

After nearly a century of conflict and litigation, the rights of Columbia River Indian tribes were re-affirmed in a 1968 federal court case (U.S. v. Oregon) by Judge Robert Belloni. In 1969, the court ruled that the tribes were entitled to take “a fair and equitable share” of the harvestable portion of the runs. The court also held that the state could regulate tribal fisheries only for the purpose of conservation, and that those regulations cannot “discriminate against the Indians”. The rights of Puget Sound Indian tribes were re-affirmed in a 1974 federal court case (U.S. v. Washington) by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt. The order determined, among other things, that the tribes have a right to harvest up to 50 percent of the harvestable surplus of fish within the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing areas.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of the fundamental principles of the Boldt decision on a 6-3 vote, ending a century of conflict over tribal fishing rights (Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association). While the issue of tribal fishing rights had been settled, court battles continued over how fish were divided between the two parties. In 1984, state and tribal leaders decided to try a new approach to fish management that relied less upon the courts and more upon fish managers. They agreed that they all wanted effective fisheries management that would conserve the fish and provide fair fishing opportunities for everyone. They agreed to set aside differences about legal principles, and work toward practical solutions, as partners. The result was “Co-Management” of fisheries resources.

The tribes and state cooperate in applying the best science to determine how many fish are needed for spawning and develop fisheries that fairly distribute opportunities for both tribal and non-Indian fisheries. Allocation is not necessarily 50/50. Sometimes, another arrangement may be a better fit for the parties’ needs. The tribes adopt and enforce regulations for their members, while the state adopts and enforces regulations for non-Indians.

The following resources may be helpful to understanding these issues: