Successful Co-Management Requires Renewed Commitment

by Ed Johnstone

Ed Johnstone

As the 50th anniversary of the Boldt decision nears, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has room to improve as co-managers with treaty tribes.

Judge Boldt’s 1974 ruling in U.S. v. Washington affirmed tribal fishing rights and status as co-managers of salmon, steelhead and herring, with provisions to address other species as required. However, last month marked the first time the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a policy developed collaboratively with the tribes.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission appreciates that six of the nine state commissioners showed a commitment to co-management when they voted in October to finally approve a joint hatchery policy. The state had been operating under a hatchery policy adopted without tribal input until tribes initiated years of work to develop the new co-managers’ joint policy for salmon and steelhead hatcheries.

“This is in my mind simply a reflection of the co-managers’ commitment to each other, to collaborate, work together,” said state Commissioner Steve Parker before the vote. “Things were pretty rough between us three decades ago. We’ve come a long way.”

While this unprecedented joint hatchery policy is a step in the right direction, the state commission is taking two steps backward by pushing a conservation policy that signals a shift in management philosophy and is being developed without the tribes.

We understand the state commissioners’ mandate to “preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage the wildlife and food fish, game fish, and shellfish in state waters and offshore waters.” By law, this must be done through meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribal co-managers. Tribes are not stakeholders. We are the co-owners of the resources who have been doing the work to conserve salmon for the benefit of everyone who lives here.

With vague language and no measurable outcomes, the draft conservation policy has too many problems for us to offer valuable input. We don’t disagree that “humankind is in the midst of a biodiversity extinction crisis and must act now,” as the draft states. However, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does not have the authority or resources to reverse the causes of declining biodiversity. 

The hard work of protecting habitat will require more than a policy statement. To reverse the trend of habitat loss that stands in the way of salmon recovery, other state agencies need to step up as well, with new authorities, regulations, and a lot more political will to prevent ongoing degradation caused by development and climate change. 

“If adopted, this policy will serve as overarching guidance to inform a variety of Department decisions relative to budget development, setting priorities, and the management of fish and wildlife,” said Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Barbara Baker. 

If the goal is to provide guidance and not regulatory authority, it should be adopted as a vision statement. We’ve been assured that the policy is not meant to interfere with tribes’ treaty-protected rights, but WDFW does have a regulatory role in permitting some of our restoration projects, land use and enforcement interactions. Regardless of the intent behind this conservation policy, its ambiguous wording could stand in the way of tribes’ work to recover salmon if misinterpreted by anyone trying to implement it.

And if our co-manager wants to put conservation first, it needs to take responsibility for human impacts to the ecosystem by accurately accounting for under-regulated, under-monitored and under-enforced recreational uses of the state’s lands and waters. This can be done without trying to redefine conservation.

We all have the same goal—to recover salmon and protect the environment. The co-management relationship created by the Boldt decision provides the framework for us to move toward that goal together. The State Fish and Wildlife Commission needs to honor that relationship by engaging with tribes first instead of trying to redefine conservation unilaterally.  


Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission         ( This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

Bookmark the permalink.