Northwest tribal leaders say they’re seeing climate change affect food sources that are vital to their culture.
“All we can do is try to help these plants and animals adapt. If we don’t, the future of the tribes’ First Foods could be at stake” says Paul Lumley of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
He’s worried about the future. Rob Manning reports on how climate change is affecting tribal culture.
Gerald Lewis is a member of the Yakama Tribal Council. He says a traditional story explains how native people are tied to salmon.
“The Creator in turn spoke to them, that ‘man was coming.’ And so, in this way, salmon stepped up and said ‘I will provide for the people.’ And so, the foods followed in order – the animals, the deer, the roots, and the berries.”
Lewis and other tribal leaders say they’re noticing changes in these sacred First Foods. He says almon are changing in two ways.
“We have seen that throughout these past few years, especially, that our salmon runs are coming in later. The size of the fish, also – they seem to be smaller.”
Gerald Lewis says the late arrival is disrupting the traditional timing of important cultural events.
“A lot of our longhouses, they depend on a certain time of the year to have our First Foods ceremony, our salmon ceremony, our welcoming back of the salmon. And the run timing of it is going back a little farther, so that each and every longhouse church have to run accordingly to the fish runs, so our ceremonies are moved back.”
Lewis says he’s also hearing from tribal women that the roots they harvest for ceremonies are changing, too.
“They are very small, and their numbers are dwindling, as well. So, it affects a lot of our roots today, this climate change.”
Tribal leaders worry that climate change might have a more powerful impact on plants than on salmon.
“A fish can move around. Plants can’t,” Paul Lumley says. “If we can do a good job at forecasting what climate change might be, we might have to step in and help the plants move. And make sure we have these roots and berries in perpetuity.”
Lumley says tribes are working with scientists to study climate effects on plants.
All kinds of scientists are watching the complex environmental effects on salmon.
Government scientists agree that salmon returning from the ocean appear to be smaller than in the past. Hatcheries and fishing practices could be part of the reason. But Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist, Kathryn Kostow says the way climate change is affecting the ocean could be responsible, too.
“It may be a change in ocean productivity, and it may be associated with climate change, but we still have a lot of work to do to decide that’s true.”
Scientists confirm that the spring Chinook runs have been late, recently. That’s culturally a very significant run for the tribes. Scientists say a climate-affected ocean could be partly responsible, but the power and temperature of the spring Columbia might be more important.
Salmon are also economically important to the tribes. And leaders are working to maintain those benefits by keeping the price for salmon high.
Tribal fishermen, meantime, want to make the most of the shortened spring salmon runs. Yakama council member, Gerald Lewis, says fishermen want to get out on the water, even when the river is dangerously rough.
“You add the wind to that, and there becomes very big swells out there, and currents are very, very bad. And so the safety of our fishermen is a very big concern.”
Lewis says he wants fishermen wearing lifejackets.
And the tribes asked the Coast Guard to demonstrate a river rescue, so that fishermen know what happens, if the rough water knocks them overboard.
Decades ago, tribal members fished off of scaffolds. Since the dams were built, they moved to boats.
Fish commission director, Paul Lumley: “We thought we were going to lose our First Foods when these dams were built and we were very lucky. We have a lot of fish coming back now. But with climate change, we might lose the fish because they are so adaptable, they stray. And if the climate is better for the fish up north, as the world warms up, the fish might decide to go live somewhere else.”
Biologists don’t expect salmon to head north. They say it’s more likely they’d just slowly disappear from the Columbia. And the way climate change is going, that could put the tribes’ precious spring Chinook, at the greatest risk.