Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 3/28/2011
  • Essay 9786

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, an intertribal organization representing 20 Western Washington treaty tribes, formed in 1974 in response to circumstances created by the first ruling in the case U.S. v. Washington (commonly known as the Boldt decision). As salmon populations declined in the twentieth century, competition between Indian, commercial, and sport fishermen grew intense. The Boldt decision reaffirmed tribal treaty fishing rights and ruled that Washington's salmon and steelhead fisheries be co-managed by the state and the tribes. To facilitate their management role, the 19 federally recognized treaty tribes in Western Washington (later joined by a 20th tribe) formed the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission to act on behalf of the tribes' interests. After nearly a decade of antagonistic relations, the commission and state agencies developed a cooperative model that has led to more effective management of salmon resources. Despite these efforts, salmon populations continue to decline and the commission has focused on preserving and restoring salmon habitat as a means to restoring salmon runs to harvestable numbers.

Salmon and the Tribes

Western Washington's tribal cultures are intricately intertwined with salmon. For millennia salmon have played a central role in Indians' spiritual traditions, provided food, and been traded to other tribes and non-Indians. Historically, seasonal runs of anadromous fish determined the timing of Indian communities' movements between mountains, water, and trade centers.

Settlement by non-Indians in the mid-nineteenth century did not initially lead to conflict over fishing or threaten the sustainability of fish runs. Indian fishermen caught the vast majority of fish and sold some to non-Indians who packed the salmon in salt and shipped them to markets. Treaties signed in the 1850s reserved the signatory tribes' rights to fish at their "usual and accustomed places and stations ... in common with all citizens of the Territory"(See for example, Medicine Creek Treaty, Article 3).

Late in the nineteenth century, canneries arrived on the Columbia River and on Puget Sound. Canning produced a more palatable, and longer lasting, product than salted salmon. This created more demand for salmon, which was met by the introduction of fish traps and fish wheels, highly effective fishing devices. As prices and demand for fish increased, non-Indian fishermen flocked to the region's rivers to catch fish on their upstream journeys toward their spawning grounds.

Conflict and Change

By the 1920s, salmon numbers began to decline significantly. Habitat loss due to logging, water pollution, irrigation diversions, streambed gravel removal, and dams combined with overharvesting to drastically reduce salmon runs. At the same time, commercial and sports fishers grew in number. In 1925 the Washington State Department of Fisheries placed restrictions on where and how salmon could be caught. Many Indians were denied access to their treaty-guaranteed fishing areas and the ability to use nets, their traditional fishing method.

State fisheries officials arrested Indian fishers who fished off reservation and several cases wound their way through the courts. Though a few Indians were convicted, the courts did not address the larger issue of whether or not the state could regulate Indian fishing that occurred off reservations, but in usual and accustomed places.

The Boldt Decision

In the 1960s, as a stronger civil rights movement developed among American Indians, Indian fishermen used more direct challenges to force resolution of the issue. Fish-ins held on the Puyallup and Nisqually rivers attracted national media attention and produced new court cases. Finally, in 1970, the United States government and the treaty tribes filed suit against the State of Washington over the enforcement of state fishing restrictions, which the lawyers argued could not be applied to Indians because of their treaty-reserved fishing rights.

The presiding judge, George Boldt (1903-1984), issued his decision on February 12, 1974. The ruling, commonly known as the Boldt decision, unequivocally reaffirmed the 19 federally recognized Western Washington treaty tribes' right to fish in their "usual and accustomed places and stations" without restrictions unless it could be proven that closing a fishery was required in order to save a particular run of salmon or steelhead (U.S. v. Washington).

Judge Boldt also ruled that the treaty language "in common with all citizens of the Territory" meant the fisheries would be divided in half, with 50 percent of the annual harvest going to Indians tribes and 50 per cent to non-Indian commercial and sport fishers in Washington (U.S. v. Washington). Boldt also ruled that the Indians' 50 per cent was in addition to those fish taken for subsistence and cultural needs, but a later Supreme Court ruling removed that additional allocation.

The Boldt decision elevated the tribes to the role of co-managers with state fisheries management agencies. Although the tribes welcomed this role, their existing fisheries programs did not have the staffing needed to manage their own activities and co-manage the fisheries with the state.

Founding a Fisheries Commission

For some time, the tribes had been working to develop an intertribal organization that would represent the region's tribes' interests and coordinate their efforts to retain fishing rights and improve the fisheries.  As early as 1960, tribal officials gathered together to form a fisheries commission, but their efforts were not successful until the Boldt decision changed the nature of state-tribal relations.

A group of tribal representatives met in Portland on May 1, 1974, to establish a charter committee for a regional, intertribal fisheries group. Interviewed in 2010, Hank Adams (b. 1943), an Assiniboine-Sioux tribal member who was a leader in the movement to protect Indian fishing rights, remembered the results of that meeting:  

"So it was Forrest Kinley, Guy McMinds, Charlie Peterson, Calvin Peters, Leo LeClair, probably Dennis Allen of Skokomish -- anyhow, assign[ed to] the formation of the fish commission to this committee and report back. Dutch Kinley was the chairman of the charter committee" (email communication with Tony Meyer). 

The committee members were already involved in tribal governance and fisheries issues. Kinley was a former chair of the Lummi Nation. McMinds served as director of the Quinault Indian Nation's Natural Resources Development Project. Peterson, the Makah fisheries director, had served as a Makah council member. Peters chaired the Squaxin Island Tribal Council. LeClair served as a member of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council and as executive director of the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington. Dennis Allen was a Skokomish fisherman.   

On June 24, 1974, the charter committee met in Seattle to develop the commission's constitution and bylaws. These were then sent to each of the tribes for ratification. The committee structured the commission's board around the five treaty areas, with one representative for each area. It charged the commission with giving "the treaty tribes the capability of speaking with a single voice on fisheries management and conservation matters" ("Indians Form Commission on Fisheries").

Tribes in each of the treaty areas formed councils to ratify the constitution and choose representatives to the commission. The Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island tribes met as signers of the Medicine Creek Treaty. The Makah, as the only signers of the Treaty of Neah Bay, sent a representative from their tribe. Representatives from the Lummi, Muckleshoot, Nooksack, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Upper Skagit tribes, all signers of the Treaty of Point Elliott, chose one commissioner. The Lower Elwha Klallam, the Port Gamble Klallam, and the Skokomish met as a council of the signers of the Treaty of Point No Point. This treaty council would be joined by the Jamestown S'Klallam when they regained federal recognition in 1981. The Hoh, Quileute, and the Quinault met as signers of the Treaty of Olympia.

The Fighting Is Over   

The first commissioners were Forrest Dutch Kinley (1914-1983), Charles Peterson (1914-1997), Calvin Peters (1927-2011), Guy McMinds (b. 1937), and Dennis Allen (b. 1935). Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014), a Nisqually Tribe council member and fisheries manager who had helped lead the fishing rights movement, was first elected to the commission in 1977 to represent the Treaty of Medicine Creek tribes. In March 1977 Frank told a writer for the commission's newsletter: 

"The fighting, that is, the fish-ins and demonstrations, is over now, I hope. My past is in the past; I'm looking forward to what will happen in the next ten years as far as the development of the resource is concerned. Now we have to sit down and be reasonable. The State is a reality we must deal with for the sake of the people and the resource. I hope that the Governor of this state will appoint a Director of Fisheries who can and will work with Indian people" ("NWIFC Sees Three New Commissioners"). 

Frank also shared his views on the fisheries situation on Puget Sound: "Let's build up the runs before we build up our fleets; and let's educate all people as to what they are doing to the environment" ("NWIFC Sees Three New Commissioners"). In May 1977, Frank began his first term as chair of the commission and has held that position nearly continuously for the past 34 years.

The Mission and the Work

In 1984, the tribes increased the number of commissioners to eight. A new constitution divided the Puget Sound region into areas defined by river drainages. Each of the eight areas included the tribes who lived in those drainages: the Quinault, Hoh, and Quileute; the Makah; the Nooksak and Lummi; the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, and Sauk-Suiattle; the Tulalip and Stillaguamish; the Muckleshoot and Suquamish; the Jamestown S'Klallam, Lower Elwha S'Klallam, Port Gamble S'Klallam, and Skokomish; and the Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and Nisqually.

Initial funding for the commission came from the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington and the individual tribes. Soon, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service provided more substantial funding. This funding allowed the commission to carry out its three-pronged mission:

"To assist in the development of programs to protect and coordinate treaty fishing rights of member Tribes; to provide technical advice and coordination as needed to tribal fisheries management plans; and to develop goodwill through public information and education projects, and to provide clear and accurate information on treaties and other Indian fishing matters to the Indian and non-Indian public" (Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Annual Report 1978).

In its first years, the commission focused its efforts on program development, catch monitoring, policy making, gear marking, assessing the Indian fishing fleet, and publishing a newsletter.

The Early Years

The years immediately following the Boldt decision were marked by rancor and conflict. At all levels, from non-Indian fishermen on the water to the head of the state Department of Fisheries, the tribes met with opposition to their fishing and co-management rights. State agencies and the tribes struggled to co-manage the fisheries, leading Judge Boldt to establish the Fishery Advisory Board to moderate disputes. At the same time, non-Indian fishers harassed Indian fishermen and repeatedly fished illegally, sometimes to create test cases to challenge the ruling.

While serving as the tribes' voice in these disputes, the commission continued to work facilitating tribal fisheries management. In 1978 the commission began the Treaty Indian Catch Monitoring Program. This involved issuing identification cards for Indian fisherman and gathering and sharing data about Indian catches. The commission also developed a communications system to update tribes quickly about changes to fishery regulations.

According to a 1980 commission publication, public information programs created by the commission, "work[ed] to improve the image of the treaty fisherman, and to boost the quality and quantity of information available to the public on the subject of Indian fishing and tribal fisheries management program" (Treaty Fishing Rights). A newsletter, which grew to become a monthly magazine, NWIFC News, began publication just after the commission began operations in 1974. It has served as a clearinghouse for information about tribal fishing, programs, commission work, legal cases and decisions, and state agency actions.  

The member tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission have used the commission as a means to coordinate their efforts to develop more effective relations with government agencies and to protect their treaty fishing rights. The commission's staff does not set fisheries policy, nor does it speak for the tribes. Instead, it provides a centralized location to gather and share information, raise funds for developing programs, discuss strategies for managing fisheries and protecting treaty fishing rights, and convey information to the public and state agencies. 

Working Relationships 

In 1979, the Supreme Court affirmed the Boldt decision, with some minor adjustments. With the end of legal challenges to the allocation and co-management aspects of the case, the state and the tribes had to decide how to move forward together. They all realized that having the fisheries managed by the courts did not benefit the fish or any of the fishermen. Also, with all the focus on allocation, the process neglected the conservation element of management.  

During the early 1980s, through tribal, agency, and political leadership, both sides began to work toward a more cooperative relationship. According to Bill Wilkerson, the director of the Department of Fisheries from 1982 to 1986, it took a" tremendous amount of courage" on the part of the tribes and the state to develop a working relationship (Wilkerson interview).

Era of Cooperation

A major step forward in the process of developing a working relationship came with the signing of the groundbreaking Puget Sound Salmon Management Plan in 1985. Commission staff met nearly every day with state agencies as they worked out the plan, agreeing to avoid turning to the court's Fishery Advisory Board to solve disputes. Biologists on the commission staff provided important watershed-specific information and the tribes worked through the commission to develop unified policies and to help make conservation decisions. The commission also coordinated with tribal representatives needed for meetings about particular areas of Puget Sound.  

The management plan was the first agreement of its kind in the United States between Indian tribes and state government. The preamble states, "The parties have developed this plan with the objectives of promoting the stability and vitality of the treaty and non-treaty fisheries of Puget Sound and of steadily improving the practical and technical basis for management for each of the Puget Sound fisheries" (Puget Sound Salmon Management Plan, 1). The plan provided a framework for fisheries management, information sharing, and dispute resolution, and established a scientific foundation for decision making. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission would later date the beginning of what it called the "Era of Cooperation" to the signing of the management plan (Comprehensive, 5).

The 1986 Timber Fish Wildlife Agreement further developed cooperative relationships between the tribes and non-Indians, including environmental groups and logging companies. According to Tony Meyer, NWIFC Information and Education Services Manager, the agreement set the ground rules for cooperative decision making, pushing each side to negotiate and find solutions that considered the needs of each of the involved parties. It also addresses the shared goal of "economic stability and regulatory certainty" by reducing the chance that litigation will delay or limit planning and cooperative efforts for habitat protection or sustainable forest management ("Timber/Fish/Wildlife").

The 1989 Centennial Accord, signed by the federally recognized tribes in Washington and Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936), "provided a framework for a ... government to government relationship and implementation procedures to assure execution of that relationship" (Centennial Accord). A number of agreements with state and federal agencies followed, establishing more effective working relationships with all levels of government. The commission was involved in the development of each of these agreements, representing the positions of its member tribes.  

In the 1980s, the public information arm of the commission produced booklets, videos, and a curriculum guide to educate the public about Indian treaty rights, the need to protect salmon habitat, and the cultural significance of salmon for Western Washington's Indians. The commission also produced numerous studies, reports, and press releases documenting salmon research and efforts taken by the treaty tribes to improve fish habitat and fish populations.  

The Hatcheries

Since the 1980s, the commission's Enhancement Services Division, which assists tribal hatchery operations, has developed a number of new programs. They coordinate hatcheries' programs and data reporting, provide training programs for hatchery staff, and assist with tagging hatchery salmon. In 1985 commission staff developed the Coded Wire Tagging Program, which used mobile facilities to travel to tribal hatcheries and place nose tags in salmon.  

In 1988 the Tribal Fish Health Center opened at the commission's Olympia office. The center's personnel support hatchery operations by monitoring fish health, helping to identify problems, and providing training, vaccines, and preventive care.

The commission's headquarters are in Olympia. Two field offices, one in Mount Vernon and one in Forks, allow commission staff to provide services to member tribes.


In 1994 another treaty rights decision was handed down in federal court. Judge Edward Rafeedie (1929-2008) ruled on a subproceeding of U.S. v. Washington that the treaty tribes had also retained the right to harvest half of the shellfish in the treaty areas.

This meant that Indians could access private property and placed them in conflict with property owners and shellfish companies who owned many of the most productive shellfish beds. The commission supported the tribes involved with the case and has implemented programs to assist the tribes in harvesting shellfish according to the terms of a settlement that was signed in 2007.

Protecting the Habitat

Although the tribes and the state developed a working relationship and cooperated on many aspects of fisheries management, salmon populations continued to decline in the 1990s. The primary reason for this, habitat degradation, had been addressed by Phase II of U.S. v. Washington, when Judge William H. Orrick, Jr. (1915-2003), ruled in 1980 that the treaty rights include the right to protect fisheries habitat.  

In 2001 United States and the treaty tribes filed suit under U.S. v. Washington asking the court to order the state to repair culverts running under state roads if they blocked salmon from reaching spawning grounds. The state planned to repair the culverts, but over a long period, to spread the tremendous cost over decades. The tribes, concerned that the salmon populations would be extinct before the culvert repairs could make a difference, filed the suit to force the state into working more quickly on the repairs. Commission staff helped the tribes coordinate their case and provided expert testimony during the trial.

In 2007, Judge Ricardo S. Martinez (b. 1951) handed down a summary judgment in the case, known as the U.S. v. Washington Culverts Case, in favor of the tribes. The final judgment has not been issued (2011), and it will almost certainly be appealed.

At the time of the Boldt decision, the individual tribes did not have the infrastructure or funding to co-manage the fisheries with the state. Through the commission, the tribes have been able to make effective use of available funding and to create a forum for coordinating programs and developing cohesive policies. During a period of tremendous change, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has helped the tribes be a guiding force in changing how Western Washington's fisheries will be shared, restored, and protected.

Sources: Committee on the State of Washington and Indian Tribes, Office of the Attorney General's Committee on the State of Washington and Indian Tribes, Final Report (Olympia: Office of the Attorney General, 1985), 58-73; Ed Goodman, "Protecting Habitat for Off-Reservation Tribal Hunting and Fishing Rights: Tribal Comanagement as a Reserved Right," Environmental Law, Spring 2000, p. 293; Richard Kolb, The Centennial Salmon Story in Washington: 1889-1989 (Seattle [?]: Centennial Salmon Committee, 1990 [?]);Lynda V. Mapes, "Another Potential Lightning Boldt," The Seattle Times, January 17, 2001 (; Lynda V. Mapes, "Shellfish Settlement Ends Years of Rancor," The Seattle Times, July 6, 2007 (; Tony Meyer, emails to Jennifer Ott, March 16 and 25, 2011, in possession of Jennifer Ott, Seattle, Washington; Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Annual Report (Olympia: The Commission, 1978), 5-6; Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Annual Report (Olympia: The Commission, 1989), 3; Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Comprehensive Tribal Fisheries Management: Report to Congress from the Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington State (Olympia: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 1995); Jennifer Ott telephone interview with Tony Meyer, March 15, 2011; Jennifer Ott, telephone interview with Bill Wilkerson, March 28, 2011; Brief of Respondent Indian Tribes, Cases 77-983, 78-199, and 78-129. U.S. Supreme Court, October Term, 1978, 11-16, 27-53; "Centennial Accord between the Federally Recognized Indian Tribes in Washington State and the State of Washington," Governors Office of Indian Affairs website accessed March 22, 2011 (; "Commissioner Elects Officers; Hires Director," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Newsletter, May 9, 1977, p. 3; "Funding for NWIFC Based on Several Sources," Bulletin: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, June 1975, p. 1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854," "Treaty of Neah Bay, 1855," "Treaty of Point Elliott, 1855,"  and "Treaty of Point No Point, 1855," (accessed  March 28, 2011); "Indians Form Commission on Fisheries," The Seattle Times, June 27, 1974, p. E8; "Indians Form Commission on Fisheries," The Seattle Times, June 27, 1974, p. E-8; "Jamestown S'Klallam History," Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe website accessed March 22, 2011 (; "NWIFC Sees Three New Commissioners," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Newsletter, March 23, 1977, pp. 1-3; "Puget Sound Salmon Management Plan," Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website accessed March 28, 2011 (; "Shellfish," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission website accessed March 27, 2011 (; Treaty Fishing Rights and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (Olympia: The Commission, 1980); "The Treaty of Olympia, Jan. 6, 1856," Quileute Nation website accessed March 28, 2011 (; "U.S. Treaties: A Northwest Perspective," Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Newsletter, May 9, 1977, p. 2; U.S. v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974); U.S. v. Washington,2007 WL 2437166 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 22, 2007).

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