Tulalip Bay Chinook
Fishing with resilience and hope
By Niki Cleary, guest contributor
This article was originally published in May 2022
The tribe’s Qwuloolt estuary, a 400-acre marsh habitat, provides essential feeding and sheltering habitat for young king salmon before they venture out to sea. Photo Credit: F. Bauer Hillery
(Editor’s note: The Tulalip Bay Chinook fishery, located about 40 miles north of Seattle, is one of the few that meets PCC’s strict standards for Chinook salmon. The tribe plays a leading role in salmon restoration work, and salmon—as explained below—are a crucial part of its culture and identity. Tulalip Chinook Salmon is not always available for retail sale because subsistence needs take priority. When supplies are sufficient to sell at PCC stores, packages are clearly labeled with the fishery’s name.)
The citizens of the Tulalip Tribes are known as the people of the salmon and the killer whale people. Since glaciers swept across the land creating the rich gravel beds that provide salmon with spawning habitat, our people have tied our lives to those of the salmon. Our people have been part of our environment as salmon evolved from one type of fish into five distinct species. We lived and grew and thrived alongside our wild brothers and sisters. When colonization took its toll on our peoples, the Tribes remembered our obligations and included the animals and plants of our lands and waters in our treaties.
Today we continue to honor and preserve that relationship. Every spring we welcome the first King Salmon (Chinook) of the season, in a ceremony. We show him respect and reaffirm our relationship, knowing that he is a messenger for his people. The Tulalip Bay King Fishery is unique. It continues our tradition of living within our ecosystem, rather than apart from it. The fishery and the hatchery that feeds it are reflections of our values as a people.
Since treaty times our people have watched as our environment was poisoned and our wild relatives began disappearing. Chinook, as well as other species, saw significant declines in the 1980s.
“I think it was ’83 or ’84, our fishermen decided not to fish Snohomish River wild stocks because of the decline,” reminisced Tulalip’s Natural and Cultural Resources Director Jason Gobin. “The thought was, if they didn’t fish for a full cycle, those fish would come back. Here we are 40 years later, we’re still not fishing those salmon.”
The Tulalip Hatchery released an estimated 2 million Chinook in 2020. They are genetically indistinguishable from the Snohomish Basin’s wild Chinook population.
When Puget Sound Chinook were listed as threatened, the tribe began transitioning to use of local natural stocks, ultimately integrating wild fish into the broodstock. This links the hatchery program with the native stock and minimizes potential for genetic harm to the population.
The fish are released from and return to Tulalip Bay, a waterway with no naturally occurring Chinook run, to ensure that Tulalip’s hatchery fish don’t compete with native Kings for spawning habitat. The area, nicknamed the Tulalip bubble, provides rare opportunities to catch Chinook salmon.
“We call it the bubble because it’s a little bubble on the map,” Gobin explained. “We haven’t had a directed wild Chinook fishery outside Tulalip Bay since the 1980s. This provides the only opportunity for our people to harvest Chinook and it’s one of the few opportunities for non-native sports fishermen to catch Chinook for recreation.”
In addition to the benefits to people, Gobin highlighted Tulalip’s history and culture as Killer Whale people, and what Tulalip’s hatchery means for the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
“We have a story of why the Killer Whale is our logo. One year when the fish weren’t returning to the rivers and our people were starving the Killer Whales took pity on the people of the Snohomish village and drove seals onto the beach to feed our ancestors.”
The Tulalip tribal fishery only harvests Chinook within Tulalip Bay and 2,000 feet offshore, after they’ve passed through the feeding grounds of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Ensuring fish are available to save this Endangered Species Act (ESA)—listed population of Orcas has become a priority for the entire state in recent years.
“I think, in a way, they are coming to save us again by forcing us to recognize the damage from lack of habitat protection, pollution, urban growth, water quality decline and the many factors that have gone on since treaty times. They’re forcing us to recognize it and fix it.”
The tribes’ modern era as resource stewards began with a landmark 1974 federal court ruling (the Boldt Decision) that restored the tribes’ treaty rights to fish and recognized their authority to govern and protect fisheries, on equal footing with the U.S. and state governments.
Since then, Treaty Tribes of Washington have become the driving force behind countless habitat restoration, mitigation and recovery efforts. Fish are not just a resource to us, they are an integral part of our culture and identity. The Tulalip Hatchery is a stopgap to carry us through while we continue to invest in repairing the damage modern living has inflicted upon our world.
Tulalip is producing fish at the Tribe’s expense for the benefit of our 5,000 citizens, the Southern Resident Orcas and all fishermen in Washington state, but the economic benefit of the fish isn’t what justifies the expense, said Gobin. We’re fulfilling a solemn promise that our ancestors made with our relatives to always do our part to protect them and sustain them.
The Tribe has taken on large costs to operate cutting-edge hatchery and fishery programs. The hatchery and fishery in the bay create economic opportunity for over 350 tribal fishermen—including some whose only access to the resource depends on running tiny skiffs in the bay—to make an income. Yet for tribal members, the ceremonial and subsistence value of these fish is even greater. As Gobin says, “To have fish in our diet and the cultural teachings of fishing and being on the water, that is the greatest benefit. We are allowing our people to continue this way of life. We are doing this out of responsibility and a need to preserve our culture. Without this fishery, we would have lost our identity a long time ago.”
Though the future sometimes feels grim, Gobin and many Tulalips are hopeful that returning to indigenous management practices can undo the damage. That we can still build a world where humans live within, rather than apart from their environment.
“We wouldn’t spend money on a hatchery if we had a healthy fishery. But what we’ve seen in the last 40 years is that this is going to be a long haul. It’s taken us hundreds of years to destroy these rivers and waterways. It’s going to take us a long time to build them back up to function as they did in the past” said Gobin.
“Today, we have substantial monitoring, tagging and otolith marking to see how our hatchery fish are interacting with wild fish and other hatchery fish. Our biologists are working to understand the limiting factors for all Chinook in the Snohomish Basin. We continue to upgrade our hatchery itself to more efficiently raise salmon.
“There are only two small creeks feeding the Tulalip Hatchery, so we are putting in a large water reuse system with UV filtration.” That system will increase (up to four times) the water supply to the hatchery so the tribe can raise more fish, and increase water volume for fish health and growth.
Tulalip is proud to partner with PCC Community Markets, an organization that shares our values. By sharing the story of Tulalip Bay Chinook, we are helping to keep this part of our culture alive for future generations.
“As a tribal member, Chinook is my favorite salmon to eat and harvest. The Tribe’s hatchery, restoration and environmental advocacy is helping carry our culture forward. We are making sure that our future includes Chinook for people and orcas.”
We are fulfilling our responsibility as stewards of the environment, as we always have, since time immemorial.
Niki Cleary is director of communications for the Tulalip Tribes.
Tulalip Bay Chinook fishery
The Tulalip Tribes’ comprehensive sustainability efforts underpin this fishery, which earned top marks under PCC’s Chinook Sourcing Standard. PCC commissioned the National Fisheries Conservation Center to develop this standard as a tool to protect the diminishing prey supply of the Salish Sea’s endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which feed primarily on Chinook salmon.
The tiny tribal fishery is an “island” of sustainable Chinook salmon fishing at a time when devastating environmental pressures—e.g. climate change, habitat degradation and harmful urban runoff—have precluded directed Chinook fishing in Puget Sound, limiting harvest to hatchery fish. Among the Tulalip fishery’s key features:
- “Post-prey” catch. Chinook salmon have already escaped from the feeding grounds of Southern Residents when they are caught in Tulalip Bay and the shallow waters along its outer shore. The endangered, fish-eating orcas hunt further offshore, while seal-eating “transient” whales (from separate orca populations) do occasionally visit these waters, a fact celebrated in Tulalip tradition.
- Effective harvest controls. Precautionary catch limits and the Tulalip Tribes’ narrowly conscribed inshore fishing area (in the bay and along its shallow outer shore) protect the endangered wild Chinook swimming home to spawning grounds in the Snohomish Basin and other nearby rivers.
- Careful hatchery support. A tribal hatchery built inside Tulalip Bay in the 1980s sustains the tribal Chinook fishery. The hatchery uses Chinook salmon broodstock derived from the Skykomish River (a major tributary of the Snohomish). This helps ensure that any returning fish that “stray” to spawn upriver bring genetics originating in the native population.
- Comprehensive salmon stewardship. For decades Tulalip has led habitat restoration efforts in the Snohomish Basin, investing millions of dollars and rallying multiple partners (agencies, NGOs, local landowners, towns, ports) to reopen blocked spawning habitat, nursery grounds and marine “pastures” so that salmon and all the species that depend on them can endure. The persistence of the tribal fishery—and the Snohomish Basin’s Chinook population itself—reflects a determined tribal commitment to restore and protect the salmon.
- Strong research. Knowing that uncertainty and blind spots can undermine fisheries, Tulalip’s fishery scientists run an extensive program of monitoring and research: marking and carefully tracking hatchery fish, monitoring the spawning grounds, documenting the catch, and now driving studies of marine plankton and juvenile salmon in offshore waters of Puget Sound to inform the tribes’ evolving efforts in a new frontier of habitat conservation: learning how to protect the healthy marine ecosystems where salmon feed and fatten up before returning home to spawn.