ON THE NISQUALLY RIVER, Wash. -- In an historic move, the Nisqually Tribe has shut down its chum salmon fishery several weeks before the season's end.
Tribal Council Member Willie Frank III said wild chum returns are so dire, the fishermen are forced to pull up their nets before the popular salmon fishing season really got underway.
"We're really in a crisis mode down here on the Nisqually," Frank said while steering his boat past empty buoys, where fishermen would typically be tending to nets. On the river bank lie abandoned nets, a sign of an abandoned fishing season.
Frank said when winter chum runs were plentiful, a day of fishing could yield 100 fish per boat.
"The numbers we got back Sunday, we caught 39 fish total between almost 40 fishermen," Frank said. "That's unheard of here on the Nisqually. We've never had that happen before."
He said it's the second time in five years they've closed this early in the season, which is meant to stretch well into January. Before 2015, it was never, he said.
"It's hard to tell your fishermen that you can't fish," Frank said. He believes there's no other choice. "I don't want to be that generation that catches the last salmon."
Frank's father, environmental and civil rights champion Billy Frank Jr., fought for the tribe's fishing rights decades ago. Today, his son fights to hang on to what's left.
By closing the fishery, the tribe is allowing what little salmon there is to swim upstream to spawn in hopes that future runs will be more bountiful because of it.
"Being on this river for me is like going to church," he said. "Being able to set that net and exercise our treaty right is something I want to be able to do for the rest of my life."
As he looks to future generations, tough calls like shutting down fishing can help for a little, but it will take big changes to save a river for a lifetime.
Low chum returns do not just plague the Nisqually. Back in late October, the state was forced to close non-treaty commercial fisheries in the South Sound because chum returns were so low, less than half of what was forecast. The state also closed Hood Canal non-treaty commercial fisheries in early November.