A resource for fishers and a respect for salmon have been at the heart of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) in Portland, Oregon, for close to 40 years. Formed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe, CRITFC provides a unified voice in managing fishery resources and exercising the inherent sovereign powers of the tribes.
Supporting more than 600 tribal fishers and participating in one of the largest fisheries in the United States, CRITFC helps families continue their traditional fishing on the Columbia River. Moreover, the commission helps assure salmon can continue to be a part of the tribal culture, diet and economy.
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has supported the work of CRITFC since 1998, providing over $430,000 in grants for a host of projects, including facilitating “over-the-bank” direct salmon sales to the public, addressing treaty rights of tribes in the Columbia River Basin, and driving compliance with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
As a thriving grantee of First Nations, CRITFC has grown into an enterprising resource, providing marketing support while ensuring safety and promoting sustainability. It is an organization always doing more to serve the tribal fishers and drive prosperity for the tribes – all through the “fish that unites us all.”
The role of the commission is to provide technical assistance to the four member tribes. Part of that support involves helping tribal fishers access new markets and increase the economic value of the commercial treaty fisheries.
“We support these tribal fishers so that they can go out and exercise their tribal rights, said Sara Thompson, CRITFC public information officer. “We are a tool. We’re here to help them.”
It is support the fishers wanted. There was a time when fishers were very dissatisfied because of low prices for their catch and the few options for sales. They saw CRITFC focusing on the sustainable return of the salmon, but they also wanted help to increase the economic value of the commercial treaty fisheries, said Jon Matthews, CRITFC chief financial officer.
Fishers would sell their salmon to the one or two wholesalers in the area, who would sell it at market for up to $15 per pound, said Matthews. “The wholesaler would reap the benefits, and the fishers would have the lowest profits in the supply chain.”
With initial seed funding provided in part from First Nations, CRITFC launched a major marketing push that would increase demand and boost sales, directly for the fishers.
“We were able to reach out to the media with human interest stories about the importance of the fishery to the tribes’ way of life,” Matthews said. “Through brochures, signs, and radio ads, we brought visibility to the program and generated a lot of interest.”
When people learned they could buy fresh fish “right around the corner,” demand and sales revenue increased and life for fishers on the river improved.
“They immediately increased sales and income,” Matthews said. “It gave them the means to not only purchase fuel and invest in their equipment, but also have more money in their pockets just for living.”
Through the years, CRITFC has built on this momentum, listening to tribal fishers in personal conversations and at meetings discussing upcoming fishing seasons. This has helped CRITFC create and implement new ways to support fishers, from bringing new wholesalers to the river to purchase fish, to providing ongoing technical assistance to access new markets outside the area. New initiatives involve establishing local partnerships for sales through farmers’ markets and increasing the understanding of product innovation issues, as well as researching the development of a cooperative for greater marketing, processing and purchasing power.
“We continue to ask: How can we best meet the tribal fishers’ needs?” said Thompson. “That is what we’re here for.”
Another focus of CRITFC is safety – both in food and of the fishers.
In 2012, with additional funding from First Nations, the commission devised and shared strategies to increase food safety. CRITFC began offering workshops on food safety and processes – proper icing, vacuum packing, canning, labeling and quality control. In 2016, also with the support of First Nations, CRITFC launched efforts to help tribes comply with FSMA. Plans today include expanding the tribal and fisher education program and updating the fisher food quality handling handbook to reflect FSMA.
This focus on food safety has not only produced food compliant with federal food safety standards, it has increased the value of the salmon. As government regulations have gotten stricter and consumers have gotten more discerning, the ability of fishers to catch and deliver healthy, safe food has resulted in higher revenues.
In addition, safety of the fish has transcended to the safety of the fishers themselves. With help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, locator beacons and life vests have been provided to fishers at reduced costs, helping improve safety. CRITFC has also conducted cold-water survival training, held workshops on how to distribute fish in the boats to improve buoyancy, and provided lights for boats, all efforts to reduce injuries and save lives.
“We take fisher safety very seriously,” Matthews said. Making sure fishers know and understand issues related to proper lighting, life vests, loading, maximum cargo and general boating operations is essential to their health and well-being, he said. “Our job is to support these tribes and give them the resources to fish – and fish safely.”
Driving CRITFC and the tribes it serves is the commitment to sustainability – of the salmon and the fishing culture. As it is across Indian Country, the work they do is not for the benefit of today’s generation – it’s for the next seven, said Buck Jones, who leads marketing at CRITFC.
“The education and support for fishers, the creating and disseminating of resources, and the listening to and responding to the needs of tribes – it all goes into ensuring salmon continues to be a way of life and livelihood for these tribal communities,” said Jones.
Through the support of CRITFC, fishers now have options to sell directly to consumers or to wholesalers, or to become wholesalers themselves. They get opportunities in business, production, purchasing, and marketing to profit in the fishing trade and create an environment where families prosper.
Further, the salmon culture is carried on.
“We see whole generations staying involved,” said Matthews. “The improved marketing and operations have bolstered the economics of these families. We see bigger fleets, younger fishers, and bigger boats. It’s a new wave,” he said.
The commitment is furthered through CRITFC’s “Salmon Camp,” which introduces tribal youth to all aspects involved in natural fisheries – fishing, plus water quality, ocean conditions, reproduction and habitats. Here the cultural connection to the fish is reinforced and fostered.
Always an important part of our people. The Sahaptin Native Americans use a word: Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum, which means “Salmon People.” “The term reflects how completely these sacred fish shape the culture, diets, societies and religions of the four member tribes,” said Matthews.
“The first salmon of the season are celebrated,” he said, noting that salmon are reserved first for ceremonial purposes before any sales are permitted.
Supporting fishers and the role of salmon for these tribes is core to the work of CRITFC, and Matthews said he’s grateful for the help of First Nations in making that support possible.
“These fishers needed a way to improve their operations and their incomes. First Nations recognized what could be done with the right resources and tools, and they helped elevate the role of fishers and salmon in the community,” he said.
Indeed, for the tribal fishers on the Columbia River, and for all the tribal communities who have accessed the resources and support of CRITFC, salmon has been the fish that unite us all. As Matthews states: “It is more than an economic device. It’s our way of life.”
By Amy Jakober