Fishing and Fossil Fuels in the Pacific Northwest
The fossil fuel industry has impacts on all types of fishers. From commercial and sport fishing to tribal and subsistence fishing, fossil fuel companies--their equipment and operations--are at odds with the fishing industry. Some areas can become closed to fishing, others may remain open but become so polluted that fish stocks are greatly diminished or may be unsafe to eat. This page will address the impacts of oil and coal on various fishers in the Pacific Northwest and discuss some current issues and opinions of those affected.
Commercial & Sport Fishers
Commercial fishing is a major industry in the Pacific Northwest and supports the economy of many coastal communities and tribes. Sport fishing is also highly popular and vital to the economy. Groundfish, halibut, albacore, salmon, crab, oysters, clams, and other shellfish are all major species groups in the area. In Washington state, commercial fishing provides thousands of jobs and is a multi-million dollar industry. Sport fishing also generates large revenues, both at the local and state level (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife).
According to a report by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW):
"Commercial fisheries generate an average of $1.6 billion annually by the time their catch is processed and distributed through wholesalers" (WDFW).
The table below shows the number of jobs and associated economic activity of fish and wildlife in Washington State.
When fossil fuel companies set up operations near coastlines and important waterways, fish and marine life can be jeopardized. Offshore drilling rigs, shipments, barge traffic, and water pollution are some examples of how the fishing industry can be affected (See Ship and Barge Traffic). Several oil refineries and one coal terminal already operate along the Pacific Northwest coastline, and more fossil fuel infrastructure is currently being proposed. Daily operations at these facilities pollute local waters, but the damage from an oil spill or other major accident along the coastline would prove detrimental to marine life and the fishing industry (See Oil Tanker Spills).
Larry Thevik has fished Grays Harbor and the Northwest coast for 45 years in pursuit of salmon, halibut, tuna, prawns and Dungeness crab. He is vice president of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association and an avid opponent of expanding the fossil fuel industry along Washington's coast. Thevik is a resident of Grays Harbor where new oil terminals would bring oil trains and shipment traffic into the costal region. He states:
"As a long-time crab fisherman out of Grays Harbor, I’m very concerned about the consequences of a major oil spill for our local economy, environment and way of life. Grays Harbor is an essential fish habitat for many species and a major nursery area for Dungeness crab. Between trains, tanks, ships and barges, one major oil spill can be devastating: contaminating coastlines, killing fish and wildlife, destroying livelihoods and ruining property values. The damage can last for decades, even generations" (Thevik).
Larry Thevik is not the only fisherman concerned with the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Fishing organizations, tribes, and environmental groups are joining forces to stand up against Big Oil.
While commercial and sport fishing are both integral to the economy and culture of the Pacific Northwest, other groups depend on fishing as a source of food and income. The next section will outline how the fossil fuel industry affects local tribes and subsistence fishers as well.
Tribal and Subsistence Fishing
Long before commercial fishing or sport fishing, Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest have fished these waters. Since time immemorial, tribes have harvested fish and shellfish as part of their cultural traditions and way of life. Today, treaty rights guarantee tribes the right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas.
Many coastal tribes are threatened by the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry. An oil spill would completely devastate the fishing treaty rights of many tribes. Junior Goodell, a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, is a commercial fisherman and chair of two Quinault Indian Nation fishing committees. He states:
"The cultural significance of the Chehalis River to the Quinault Indian Nation cannot be overstated. Fishing is fundamental to our way of life and to our identity — as a consequence, the health and vitality of our river is a true and essential link to the health and vitality of the Quinault people. So much of our culture and our way of life has been assimilated or eradicated by the U.S. government. However, because of — and giving thanks to — our all-mighty sacred treaty with the United States, fishing survives and remains a stronghold to our identity. Just as you cannot put a value on the air you breathe, we cannot place a monetary value on the fish, their habitat or our treaty rights. Those, however, are being put at risk by proposals for oil-train terminals at Grays Harbor. These terminals would ship tens of millions of gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and tar-sands oil from Canada. The crude would come by train along the Chehalis River to be stored in massive shoreline tanks, then pumped onto oil tankers and barges, dramatically increasing large-vessel traffic in and out of the harbor" (Goodell).
Pictured above from left to right: Tyson Johnston, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation; Barack Obama, president of the United States; and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, at the 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. November 2015.
President of the Quinault Indian Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Fawn Sharp, is highly opposed to bringing new fossil fuel infrastructure to Washington's coast. Not only are the tribe's treaty rights threatened, their village of Taholah is in jeopardy due to sea-level rise associated with climate change, and the fossil fuel industry is one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis (National Wildlife Federation). Fawn Sharp states:
"The increased levels of carbon released by humans since the industrial age has had major impacts and, as population has expanded in the U.S. and elsewhere, the increased amount of automobile emissions as well as other fossil fuel emissions have led to ever-increasing change in the form of water temperature increases and acidification. The ocean is warming. It has become acidified. The sea level is increasing, increasing the intensity of storm surges, as well as flooding, erosion, forest fires and habitat loss. Glaciers have melted or are melting, causing rivers and lakes to warm and making them uninhabitable for fish. We feel all of these impacts at Quinault Nation. Our Mount Anderson glacier is gone. It was there for thousands of years and over the past few years it simply melted. It is warming the water and making salmon restoration more challenging. Climate change is expected to significantly alter the ecology and economy of the Pacific Northwest, and tribes and Native communities are among the most climate-sensitive groups within this geographic area" (Sharp).
With concerns of a changing climate and the potential risks of oil spills and other fossil fuel pollutants, many tribes are standing up against oil and coal projects in the Pacific Northwest. The Lummi Nation took a strong and successful stance opposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point (See Lummi & Coal; See Ferndale/Cherry Point Oil & Coal). The Lummi Nation, whose boundaries stretch around Lummi Island just off the coast from Bellingham, Washington, spent years trying to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the Gateway Pacific Terminal will impede their legally mandated fishing rights in the waters surrounding the facility. Cherry Point is an official state aquatic reserve and the Lummi’s historic fishing grounds and burial site. Tim Ballew III, Chairman of the Lummi Nation, says:
“These rights cannot be easily ignored by the federal government. In exchange for relinquishing our aboriginal lands, we negotiated the guarantee of certain rights. Among other things, we retained the right to fish in our usual and accustomed waters. For the Lummi and other tribes in our region, the preservation of Treaty Fishing Rights in our treaties with the United States was, and is, extremely important. The Treaty Fishing Right guarantees both harvest of fish and access to our usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations. The proposed development of the Gateway Pacific Terminal would gravely deny access to our fishing resources” (Ballew)
Lummi leaders have rallied in Washington D.C., attended countless meetings and protests, and organized a Totem Pole Journey to show solidarity with other tribes, raise public awareness, and strengthen opposition to the export of fossil fuels from the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Check out this video to find out more about the Totem Pole Journey. In 2016, the Army Corps sided with the Lummi and rejected the coal terminal as a violation of tribal fishing rights.
Fishing in the Pacific Northwest is a way of life for many people--be it economic, sport, cultural, or for subsistence. Big oil and coal projects are threatening fishers of all kinds, but the Pacific Northwest is standing strong against the fossil fuel industry. For the waters to remain open, clean, and safe for fishers, they must come together to protect the fishery. Stand Up To Oil, Power Past Coal, and hold The Thin Green Line.
Remarks by Larry Thevik at the "Shared Waters, Shared Values" rally at Hoquiam City Hall, on July 8, 2016:
I have been a commercial fishermen for 45 years...I'm the vice president of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman's Association. I'm also speaking on behalf of the Washington Trollers Association, the Westport Charter Boat Association, and the Coastal Coalition of Fishers, which is a 15-member coalition of commercial fishing organizations, coastal charter operators, and coastal shellfish growers.According to the University of Washington report, marine resource-dependent jobs account for 35% of Grays Harbor and Pacific County's workforce. A Port of Grays Harbor state approximately 2,300 jobs and $230 million annually come from just fishing activity in Westport. As everyone knows, Grays Harbor needs more jobs, but our members have concluded that the benefits from the terminals simply do not measure up to the risks that they bear. The new jobs that are expected are not that many, yet the potential threat to existing jobs is huge. Grays Harbor is the fourth largest estuary in the nation, it a major nursery area for dungeness crab, it is an essential fish habitat for many other species.According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Grays Harbor is an area that is particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of oil spills. If there were to be a spill, the volume of oil that's being considered would lead to a catastrophic loss of habitat, and the potentially affected are would be much larger than the Grays Harbor vicinity. Remember, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons and it damaged 1,300 miles of coastline. The Nestucca oil barge that was hold off of Grays Harbor spilled only 231,000 gallons, and that spill killed 56,000 seabirds. The machine was seen from Oregon to the north tip of Vancouver Island. The tankers that were moved through Grays Harbor will haul up to 15 million gallons each.The Department of Ecology claims that Washington has the best spill response plan in the nation. If that the case, it's still painfully inadequate and the spill response plans in Grays Harbor will not measure up to the task. No matter how high the paperwork is stacked, oil spill response plans and spill response assets are simply not going to take care of the problem. Booming, which is our first defense when a spill occurs, loses effectiveness in strong currents and in rough water. Eptide currents in Grays Harbor regularly exceed 3 1/2 knots. We saw some evidence of the current today when the kayakers were coming through the dock, and that was just around one knot.Fall and winter gales blow strong, they blow often, and unless a spill occurs during daylight hours at a slack tide and at calm seas, booming will offer little defense against a spill. Booming may work well in some places, but it will not work in Grays Harbor. If Grays Harbor is targeted for the shipment of tar sands oil, much of that oil will likely sink, rendering booming useless and our estuary destroyed.A major spill in Grays Harbor will travel fast, it will travel far, it will not be contained and it will not be recovered. Hauling trainload after trainload of highly volatile crude oil through our communities, storing it near a population center, in a tsunami zone, on sites subject to liquefaction, shipping it through a sensitive marine estuary, and then transiting over the second worst bar on the west coast is a recipe for disaster. Despite the port's approval and advocacy for this jobs creation plan, it is simply a bad one. Hardly a more perfect poison to kill existing jobs could be concocted.Our associations agree the potential for damages for exceed the benefits the terminals would provide. The profits will go elsewhere while the risks remain with us. While it is true that tribal and non-tribal fishers often disagree on how to allocate our shared waters and our shared marine resources, it is also true we are united in our resolve to preserve those resources. Our survival and our futures depend on it. Working together, we the citizens of Grays Harbor and our neighbors across the entire state must stand up against sacrifice, reclaim our destinies, and, speaking with one voice, take our fate back in the hands of poorly informed decision makers and from Big Oil and just say no."
Remarks by Grays Harbor fisher and opthomologist Francis Estalilla at the "Shared Waters, Shared Values" rally at Hoquiam City Hall, on July 8, 2016:
"I chose to live here 22 years ago. I will die here....The overriding theme of this rally is shared waters. To that end, my personal war cry is Shared Waters, Shared Salmon...Salmon are iconic to the Pacific Northwest and sacred to the Quinault people. Historically, the Chehalis River was once a literal salmon super highway. Streams of Grays Harbor have sustainably produced salmon for centuries.
In modern times, I have personally witnessed phenomenal runs of nearly 1/4th million coho, over 50,000 chum, and over 40,000 chinook salmon returning to Grays Harbor. To me personally, sustainable salmon are my passion. I marvel at their unyielding tenacity to complete their lifecycle while also recognizing all too keenly their tremendous food value. More than anything, I just like to catch them. For me and many of my fishing peers, Larry including, the experience just borders on religion. Shared waters, shared salmon. They are a huge reason of why I chose to call Grays Harbor home over these past 22 years. I fished all over the west coast, from the Columbia River north to Kodiak, Alaska. On a good year, there's no finger salmon fishing than what I've got 30 minutes from my doorstep.
Over my career I've amassed a ridiculously well stocked arsenal of fish and tackle. Y'all saw my boat out there. For the next three or four months I'll spend many a sleepless night strategizing on how best to use that boat to fill the fish box, much to the delight of my family, my friends, and my neighbors. Shared waters, shared salmon. Salmon are a keystone species, the lifeblood of a natural economy, linking the Pacific Ocean to the temporary rainforest ecosystem and all the creatures that call it home. In their annual spawning migration, our local salmon deliver through their bodies a tremendous biomass of marine derived nutrients to fertilize and support the Forest, all the way up to the Olympic Mountains.
Along the way, they support a thriving, commercial, and recreational fishery. Fisheries shared by the state and the Quinault Indian Nation. Shared waters, shared salmon. To thrive, young salmon need the cool, clean river flowing into an spoiled estuary which serves as their nursery before they transition to a life in the ocean pasture. It's the river and the estuary that are at greatest risk from the threat of transporting and storing Bakken crude oil in Hoquiam. An oil spill into the Chehalis or directly into Grays Harbor would be devastating to salmon and all the local fisheries dependent on them. We who share the salmon must ask the policymakers this question: with whom shall we be made to share our waters? If it's going to be the big oil companies bringing these toxic and explosive oil trades, I say thanks, but no thanks. I learned long ago that oil and water just don't mix, and it's as true now as it was then. Crude oil is just a bad fit for Grays Harbor, its economy, and the coastal lifestyle that we all enjoy. Simply said, spoiled waters threaten shared salmon.
Among the many reasons already presented by my fellow speakers, and especially Larry who outlined it so clearly, this is why I, too, believe that this permit must be denied. As I testified at the public hearing last fall in Aberdeen, the question we must all ourselves is: is it worth the risk? To quote a Native Alaskan elder speaking on behalf of Bristol Bay salmon a few years ago, his words are quote, 'No. Not no. Not just no, but HELL NO!' ."
Goldfarb, B. (2015, January 30). Restoring salmon fisheries and a tribal birthright in Pacific Northwest. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Goodell, J. (2015, June 1). Grays Harbor oil terminal would threaten Quinault Indian identity. The Seattle Times.
National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.) Global warming is human caused. NWF.
Thevik, L. (2015, August 30). Grays Harbor poor choice for locating crude oil terminals. The Olympian.
Walker, R. (2015, April 1). Fawn Sharp discusses steps to stemming the tide of climate change. Indian Country Today Media Network.
Walker, R. (2015, August 24). Lummi Chairman: We will fight coal terminal ‘by all means necessary.’ Indian Country Today Media Network.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). (2010). Fish, wildlife, and Washington's economy. WDFW.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. (2008, December 11). Washington commercial fisheries economic value report. WDFW.