Tribal fishermen cast nets for Seattle salmon

With the Seattle skyline in the background, tribal fisherman Rob Purser, a member of the Suquamish Indian Tribe, tosses a salmon just plucked from his net onto a pile of others on the deck of his boat. 

SEATTLE — In the shadow of a city bustling with high-tech hype, high-end coffee and high-flying jets, a tradition tuned to nature's quiet rhythm thrives at this time of year.

Small tribal fishing boats take to the water around the clock, crews setting their nets for coho and chum salmon.

The Muckleshoot tribe works the lower Duwamish River, where it streams into Puget Sound's Elliott Bay on either side of industrial Harbor Island, surrounded by massive ships, busy tug boats, and stacks of rusty cargo containers. The Suquamish tribe focuses on the north end of Elliott Bay.

"These are the salmon people," said Mike Mahavelich, who works as a fisheries biologist for the Muckleshoot.

The salmon are striving for spawning grounds 40 to 50 miles upriver, and despite population growth and industry that have changed it, the Duwamish remains "a very productive river," he said.

Early one recent sunny morning, as traffic began to clog city streets, Cal Ulberg scooted through the maze of docks that edge the island, calling out greetings, making sure there were no conflicts between shipping and tribal nets. "Captain Cal" is one of three Muckleshoot monitors who cover the 24-hour day.

The Muckleshoot gillnets are attached to shore and marked at the watery end with fluorescent orange-red floating balls. Dozens bob in the waterways, where they are checked — and the catch cleared and iced — at least twice a day.

Nets are lifted from noon Friday to noon Sunday to give the fish a chance to get upstream, where 5,000 are needed for the coho hatchery and the rest swim on to spawning streams. Passing through the mouth of the Duwamish on their way from the ocean to the Green River watershed, they virtually stop eating when they reach freshwater, focusing instead on reproduction.

Aside from the tribes, coho fishing is strictly recreational in Puget Sound, said Pat Frazier with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, although non-tribal commercial fishermen target the less prized chum that follow.

"There's not enough for everybody," Mahavelich noted.

The 20 tribes that historically fished the runs were granted half the catch under a historic 1974 federal court decision that restored their access to "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds.

Still, the stress of pollution and habitat destruction have necessitated Endangered Species Act protections for some faltering Northwest salmon runs. A recent lawsuit challenging federal management of the chinook contends they are being overfished.

Before the 1974 ruling, Northwest tribes took less than 3 percent of the catch for ceremonial and subsistence purposes.

Rob Purser, now fisheries manager for the Suquamish, didn't grow up with fishing but took it up with his father soon after the 1974 decision.

"We had some relatives in Lummi with some skiffs. They brought them down and we used those," he recalled one recent misty morning out on the water, noting that each of his own five children has helped out.

Like many tribal fishermen, Purser fishes on the side — setting his nets at night and checking them at dawn.

The Suquamish now have a couple dozen boats but only about a dozen full-time fishermen.

The Muckleshoot tribe has about 110 registered fishing boats and more than 200 fishermen. Most of the 16- to 20-foot Muckleshoot boats carry two people.

"Lots of fathers and daughters," Ulberg notes. And relatives, and friends. They haul the net over the gunwales, remove fish and occasional flotsam, then straighten the net out as it drops back into the water.

The nets were not full, but it's been a good year for coho, or silvers. With the coho season near its end, a harvest of about 60,000 is anticipated — well above numbers in the 1980s, before the hatcheries got going in a big way.

The Suquamish and Muckleshoot have a joint hatchery operation for coho, with young fish raised in fresh water by the Muckleshoot and "hardened off" in Elliott Bay net pens just north of the downtown waterfront.

The number of coho in Elliott Bay more than doubled to 100,000-plus when that operation got under way, paid for with mitigation money — for effects on habitat and treaty rights — as Elliott Bay Marina was developed.

Millions of dollars' worth of pleasure boats bob at the marina, just a few hundred yards from the nets.

"We've come a long way," said Mahavelich. The shelter of hatcheries and the pens brings the tribes' fish back at nearly 20 percent; wild fish return to spawn at a rate of about 1 percent, but he hopes that will increase.

At the Muckleshoot dock south of downtown, big ice-filled plastic "totes" were lined up to take the catch from the icy boat holds. The tribe's clients include the Safeway grocery chain, Mahavelich noted.

"Probably the freshest fish there is," he said of the one- or two-day trip to store shelves. "People are always going to want salmon."

The wild fish are running in Puget Sound from June through December.

By contrast, farmed Atlantic salmon are harvested year-round. As they became widely available in the early 1990s, the market for wild coho suffered.

"All of a sudden here come these cosmetically perfect fish. We were on the ropes for maybe 10 years," said longtime Seattle-based fisherman Pete Knutson, whose family sells to local farmers markets.

But over time, concerns about fish-farm impact on ecosystems — and pollutants in the fish themselves — helped reverse the trend, he said.

"And we started getting the chefs involved. They were saying, 'Man, these things taste like Vaseline.' It's like eating your goldfish — fish just sits there its whole life. Wild salmon are lean and buff — there's no comparison for texture and flavor."

Purser, the Suquamish fisherman, agreed. "People are getting tired of that Atlantic stuff," he said as he and his daughter Heather motored their 28-foot gill-netter over to the orange ball that marked their free-floating 1,200-foot-long net, set near the port granaries south of Magnolia Bluff.

It was foggy and cool this morning, damp ruffling the fur of their dog, Ozzie. There was no sign of the half dozen other tribal boats that Purser said are usually out.

As the hydraulic spool began winding in the net, Purser grimaced. The net's green mesh was coated with slimy brown gunk — dead algae, he said, and not a good sign. The mud made the net visible to the fish, like a curtain. "They'll go around," he said.

There were just 13 salmon in the net, and a total catch of just 17 fish for the day. As each one reached the boat, the reel was stopped.

Purser and his daughter, a senior at Western Washington University, worked toward the salmon from opposite sides of the net, carefully extracting the 6- to 8-pound fish and tossing them on deck.

Each fish struggled a little before stiffening, as the black-and-silver harvest grew.