Historic Memory of Ten’s of Thousands of Sea Mammals Indigenous to the Columbia River Watershed
Over 2200 sea lions and seals make themselves at home in the Columbia River. As far as 145 miles up the River at the Bonneville Dam, Willamette Falls on the Willamette and the waters in between the ocean bar at Astoria sea mammals are at home. (According to the Oregon Dept of Fish & Wildlife “A 2006 survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimated up to 1,200 California sea lions and 1,000 Steller sea lions in the lower Columbia River.”) This is not a new phenomenon. Early English speaking visitors in the landscape – Lewis & Clark, David Thompson & the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, George Simpson, documented large numbers of seals all the way up to Cascade Falls & Wyam, Celilo Falls, over 200 miles up the river. It has been estimated that at the time of Lewis & Clark there were over 20,000 sea mammals in the River system. Today most are migratory animals that breed primarily in California. It is estimated that 200 years ago there may well have been year round residents. Despite these large numbers the seal lions were extremely difficult to hunt and had incredible value. It has been reported by George Simpson, that in the slave trade that existed at the time in the Pacific Northwest, a River Sea Lion had a value (primarily because of its fat) – that exceeded the value placed on a human life.
Willful Amnesia –
The sea lions and seals have kept their memory and despite big changes they are still in the Rivers. Historic mythical fish runs were decimated and many species have been made extinct. The colonial capitalism process of the British and then USA has commoditized much of the landscape in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon Industries set up combinations of catch wheels and gill nets with canneries which removed so many of the salmon – which historically had been catchable every day of the year – that remaining Indian Villages along the Columbia such as Priest Rapids faced starvation as early as the 1880’s. When the Bonneville Dam came in it had no fish ladder and the complete destruction of historic runs began. As the resource of salmon diminished, remaining sea mammals were viewed as competitors and killed off with inexpensive bullets by hunters and fishermen. In just over a hundred years after the 1st colonialists came into the region most mega fauna (large mammals) that were not colonialists had been completely removed from the river system. Sea Lions were not the only mammals impacted. Grizzly bears were as deeply affected.
From the time that sea mammals began their return in the 1980’s until recently government scientists have written reports about exotic animals eating endangered salmon. Historically sea mammals consumed an estimated 2 – 4 % of salmon in line with current levels of consumption. Humans currently consume about 17% of salmon. Dams are estimated to destroy a minimum of 17 % of current runs. Current salmon runs in Oregon range from 1 to 19% of historical levels depending on how ocean conditions interact with habitat loss in a current year. In those places that habitat has not been completely destroyed 40-70% of habitat destruction is typical. Salmon recovery is dependent on the recovery of habitat, bringing down of dams, the ending of toxin flows into our watersheds, and management of human harvesting. Because sea lions have the advantage of water adaptation and do not have weapons they have been make into scapegoats in the fragility of endangered and threatened wild salmon runs.
This spring in the year 2013 only 40 spring Chinook salmon had been caught by ceremonial native fisherman above the Bonneville Dam in the period leading up to the traditional first salmon ceremony. Indians were forced to serve last years frozen salmon at the first salmon ceremonies. Meanwhile sports fishermen below the dam had harvested over 6000 spring Chinook salmon. (The management rational is to let sports fisher people fish early when it is hard to catch anything and First Nations to fish later when it is easy to catch.)
When First Nations were forced to sign land cession treaties they were wise enough to maintain title to traditional hunting, fishing and gathering rights. The level of habitat destruction that has occurred and the lack of transparent treaty right easements and ecological treaty right based responsibilities on privately deeded lands have represented a collapse of the meaningfulness of those historic agreements, and rights established by what has in time come to be recognized internationally as Indigenous Title. Because by international law lands that were not ceded by agreement maintain Indigenous Title most of the United States is in fact illegally occupied by non indigenous title holders (over half of land cessation treaties were never ratified by Congress – those that were obtained under a threat of genocide – effectively nullifying their legitimacy). Canada to the North has taken this issue to heart and has been renegotiating title across huge acreages in light of International Law. In the United States the Federal government has had a consistent pattern of avoiding any acknowledgement or openings within its legal system for International law to come into play with the adjudication of historic and ongoing theft of resources being destroyed in defiance of Indigenous Title. The Pacific Northwest has been an exception to this overarching pattern as the historic Boldt decision affirmed history treaty obligations as having standing into the future and specifically applicable to the harvest of Salmon in the Columbia River and associated watersheds. The recent decision recognizing the primacy of Klamath Indian fishing based water rights over agricultural water rights reinforces this legal reality.
The result of the marginalization of salmon is that both First Nations and the Federal and State agencies that are charged with the management and recovery of the salmon have declared war on the sea mammals. Just last week a sea lion tried to get past the Bonneville Dam in the fish ladder and was killed for the deed. As I write this the four traps at Bonneville have sea lions and have been covered with tarps to keep the likely killing out of the public record. Two are now scheduled for life in a New York Aquarium and one is being “euthanized”. Several others were branded and returned to the water. . Idaho, Washington and Oregon have permits to kill up to 95 a year through 2016 representing a cull of up to nearly 500 sea lions! A court order stopped the killing in 2011 but judges have ruled in favor of the killing despite multiple lawsuits to stop it. Animals are being branded and marked to assist their tracking. Animals are being shot at and harassed in an effort to deter them from their biological and historic indigenous imperatives. Repeat eaters at fish ladders are being trapped and killed. Sea Shepherd – the planetary enforcers of sea mammal protection law and activists around these issues has set up guardians who are documenting this violence and questioning the science and ethics which have led to the marginalization of animals that have a diminished political and economic voice in comparison to the salmon.
Grizzly Bears presence at the Salmon Table.
A similar story holds true for the Grizzly Bear who historically had a presence at the falls along the River during salmon runs. Successful reproduction in grizzly populations depends on a source of high fat foods in the fall before hibernation and again in the spring after emergence from the den. Their are two distinct dietary strategies that differentiate the Grizzly Bear populations of the west. One is centered on the Whitebark Stone Pine – the tree which grows highest in the Western Alpine slopes – it is a high fat food source that squirrels gather and store with other nuts in middens. Grizzly’s have become experts at raiding squirrel middens in the fall and have been documented digging through 6 feet of snow in the spring to access squirrel middens for spring feeding. In good years the nuts can provide up to 60% of caloric intake of grizzly mothers.
The other primary food source for the grizzly is salmon. Historically they have learned to simply strip the skin and fat from the salmon leaving the meat for the birds and others who feed around them. This feeding and sharing was a primary way that the nutrients from the sea grew legs and was then distributed across the landscape as bear feces and through the bodies and feces of the tertiary feeders. While Grizzly Bears are slowly making a comeback after virtual extinction in most of the lower 48 states all known populations are Whitebark stone pine reliant. The lower elevations of salmon based diets include levels of violence from humans that have as of yet not been willing to stop. The Columbia River National Scenic Area is a place where public lands and salmon meet in historic Grizzly Bear habitat. Isolated evidence of a grizzly presence in the Columbia River National Scenic Area has been reported privately. It could well be the place a reemerging grizzly population could cross over from the high mountain whitepine diet back to salmon.
9 vertebrate species have a consistent primary relationship with salmon – this is a link to a report that details this – by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Grizzly Bears are listed in the top 9 consistent primary relationships while sea lions and seals are listed with the 58 species known to have recurrent relationships.
Clark’s Nutcracker & Grizzly Bear Communities
First Nations were largely treated like the sea lions, seals and grizzly bears by the mostly European industrialized fishing business. They were viewed as competition to full scale exploitation of the “resource” and every attempt was made to remove them. Smohalla led a long running “renegade” occupation of Priest Rapids and the Wyam people kept fidelity with Celilo Falls despite the most brutal of tactics to destroy their fisheries and their lives – leading to the eventual flooding of both sites. From the First Nations perspective the Construction of the Priest Rapids and The Dalles Dams by the US Army Corp of Engineers was a capstone strategy to complete the removal of Indians from the River and destroy the centerpieces of the traditional diets and culture of the people in a longstanding genocidal process. Despite these efforts the Indian Nations did not go away and have continued to win battles in the courts on behalf of the fisheries and slowly efforts to restore the wild runs that still have shadows of existence are under way. Despite the continuance of salmon – continuing to eat a traditional diet has become life threatening as a result of toxic chemical loads in the ecosystem.
Here is an overview of an EPA report presented by Larry Dunn, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, on impacts of toxic chemicals on the traditional diets and children in the Pacific Northwest. Extremely high levels of birth deformities and cancers are documented as directly connected to toxicity in traditional foods.
The EPA concluded in this report that quote,
“Some 80,000 chemicals are produced and used in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency has been able to require testing on just 200 and only five have been regulated under the Toxics Substances Control Act… The time has passed for negotiating acceptable levels of toxic chemicals in the environment, with the current levels and number of health issues which can be attributed to chemical exposures, we as a species appear to be on our way to extinction. To avoid this we need to be aggressive in cleanups, and regulating the use of chemicals. We must protect those most vulnerable groups and in the process we will protect everyone.”
Regulatory Agencies have proven themselves to be a political ruse despite well intentioned scientists who work within them and attempt to communicate the level of danger toxins in our environment represent. It may be that rather than fighting against the remaining mega fauna who share salmon we need to address, in a more meaningful way the permission given to those who have toxified our home in what could be read as a continuation of a genocidal process against First Nations and their Human Rights to access traditional foods without being poisoned. We all share the fate which our Native Nations are enduring with the most visible impacts among us all.
A growing movement to establish Rights of Nature and to give our ecosystems and local community’s protection from corporate personhood rights is emerging which could allow us to reverse the fiasco of “regulated” harm that has resulted in the toxification of our icons of indigenous food systems. Community Ordinances are effectively stopping the ability of corporate activities to engage in this form of violence on a local level.
Sea lions and seals have been watching and listening to the River through all of this. Will they in the end have the River?