Helena Linnell stood outside the Coquille Indian Tribe headquarters on a chilly morning in October diligently picking out countless pieces of seaweed tangled in a net.
The previous day, Linnell and a handful of others, wearing waders and raincoats, had jumped in the frigid waters and stretched the gill net across the mouth of Ferry Creek in the Coquille River watershed near the southern Oregon coast in the hopes of catching fish. All they caught, however, was seaweed.
Linnell and many of the same people, mostly volunteers, were unfazed and came back the next day. This wasn’t a leisurely fishing trip but instead an important step in an effort to save the river’s Chinook salmon, which in recent years have essentially disappeared from the watershed.
“So, obviously the idea is that this (net) is clear enough that the fish don’t see it,” Linnell, the tribe’s biological planning and operations manager, told a colleague and tribal member who had just arrived to help.
The two apparently cleared enough seaweed because later that day the net snagged two female Chinook salmon. After quickly being untangled from the net, the two salmon, now destined for a nearby hatchery, became part of a plan to restore the once-abundant fish to the region’s waterways.
The fish-catching operation was part of a partnership the tribe formed with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife last year amid an ongoing crash in the number of fall-run Chinook salmon — a species important to not just the tribe but the whole region — returning to the river’s watershed to breed.
And the tribe, which says it has the resources and expertise to aggressively tackle the decline, wants to take its work with the state further.
The Coquille Tribe has requested, with the support of many of the region’s local governments and other organizations, to be named co-manager of the river along with ODFW. Tribal leaders say that sort of formal arrangement would guarantee the tribe has a seat at the table in decisions surrounding management of the Coquille River watershed, especially because, they say, ODFW doesn’t have the resources to adequately address the urgent problems that have led to the dramatic reduction in fall-run Chinook salmon numbers.
The tribe says the additional resources, like money and staff, that it could steer toward the problem would guarantee an aggressive salmon recovery effort.
“I think this is new for the state of Oregon, for another sovereign government to have a say in the management decisions on that river,” said Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council. “The problem is that ODFW has not put staff time or resources (toward the river) … and we’re just not OK with that.”
The tribe’s well-being has been intertwined with the river and surrounding land and waterways — and the plants and animals found there — since time immemorial. Salmon are considered relatives, nourishing the tribe for thousands of years, and continue to be a cornerstone of Coquille culture.
Without abundant Chinook salmon, the tribe said in an emergency declaration last August, the tribe can’t uphold its constitution’s five main objectives, including the preservation of tribal culture, the social and economic wellbeing of tribal citizens, and safeguarding the rights of members.
The steep decline prompted the state to close the Coquille River to salmon fishing last year, which worsened challenges that the local economy was already facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bandon Chamber of Commerce wrote in its letter to Brown. Further closures, or extirpation of Chinook salmon, would devastate the area’s businesses and deal a major blow to a cherished part of the region’s identity, according to many of the letters sent to Brown.
“Without prompt and decisive action, these mighty fish soon may be gone forever. Our communities will lose a treasured resource, and our economy and people will suffer,” the three-member Coos County Board of Commissioners wrote to Brown. “The Tribe has resources to contribute and experience to share. Perhaps most importantly, it is powerfully motivated to save a salmon run that has sustained its people for thousands of years.”
A spokesperson for Brown said her office has received the letters of support and is “engaged in regular conversations with the tribe,” but didn’t say whether the governor supported the tribe’s co-management proposal like the letters encouraged.
An ODFW spokesperson said the agency and tribe are discussing what co-management could mean for the river and the details of a potential agreement.
Meade said the partnership and heightened attention on the sharp declines in Chinook numbers have mobilized the entire area to address the crisis or raise awareness about it, adding that it’s not uncommon to see someone wearing a shirt that the tribe made and distributed with “Save the Coquille River Salmon” printed on the front.
While a variety of groups have long been working to protect salmon populations, Meade said the recent increased focus has prompted additional organizations and local governments to begin developing their own restoration projects or nonprofits to complement existing efforts.
“One thing that we saw through this process was just the incredible support from community partners,” she said. “It just came alive here.”
Tribes push for more authority
The Coquille Tribe’s co-management proposal comes amid a broader push by Oregon tribes to have more authority in natural resource management and water policy decisions.
In September, all nine of Oregon’s tribal nations sent a letter to Brown requesting that the state give the tribes more influence over water policies, citing the precarious future that many Oregon watersheds face, including threatened fisheries and the impacts of climate change. That letter comes as the state develops a 100-year water management plan.
In the letter, the tribes requested that Brown create a tribal-state task force to ensure the state is coordinating with tribal nations in implementing water policies, in addition to working with the tribes to develop policies specific to individual tribes.
At the time, a spokesperson for Brown said the state was including the tribes in discussions around its 100-year water vision and planned to have ongoing conversations about water policy decisions.
Meade said the Coquille Tribe’s partnership — and hopefully co-management status of the Coquille River — could be a model for other tribes seeking a greater role in natural resource management issues traditionally handled by the state.
At a Jan. 12 meeting of the state Legislature’s Interim Committee on Agriculture, Land Use and Water meeting, Meade and leaders of three other Oregon tribes told lawmakers about a number of problems that involve water and the tribes, including drought, wildfire, decreasing fish populations and water quality. The leaders also discussed some of the projects, like salmon restoration and irrigation, that the tribes have undertaken with state, federal and other partners.
The leaders credited the state — which was the first, in 2001, to pass a state-tribal consultation law — for being a good partner in projects over the years. But at the same time, some said the state needs to strengthen the role of tribes in policymaking, which they said is especially important as the state sets future water-related policies.