PAT NEAL: The 50th anniversary of the Boldt Decision

It’s been 50 years since the Boldt Decision of Feb. 12, 1974. The world has changed.

You can see it in the barren rivers, smell it in the air with no scent of spawned out salmon and see it in the reduced numbers of people who fish for salmon for food.

Much of what existed back then is gone now. Few survive who still remember.

In those 50 years, the old timers’ fish stories became legend. The legends became history and history has been forgotten.

The history of the Olympic Peninsula is the story of one extinction after another.

Stone Age hunters eradicated the mastodon and associated mega-fauna about 14,000 years ago.

In the 1700s, European explorers found the Strait of Juan de Fuca teeming with whales and sea otters. The sea otter was exterminated by the early 1800s. The whales were rendered shortly thereafter.

The arrival of the railroad in the early 1900s brought the industrial revolution and the biggest lie of the 20th century: Natural resources are inexhaustible.

World wars and world trade created a big demand. By the 1970s, America’s post-war economy boomed with a fishing fleet that caught a maximum sustained harvest.

Judge George Boldt waited until President Abraham Lincon’s birthday to hand down his decision regarding U.S. v. Washington, that the 20 treaty tribes had the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places in common with the other citizens of the United States.

Boldt ruled that the phrase, “in common” meant the treaty tribes were entitled to catch half of the harvestable salmon. In addition, the Boldt Decision declared that the tribes were to become co-managers of the fisheries with the state of Washington.

To say that the Boldt Decision was not well received by the rest of the fishing industry would be an understatement.

It blew up what was known as the Fish War. It had smoldered since the Treaties of the 1850s, when tribal members were pushed off their traditional fishing grounds and intensified after WWII when tribal fishers were arrested for fishing.

By the 1970s, tribal fishing became a social protest movement with “fish-ins” attracting Hollywood celebrities like Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory, who were arrested for illegally fishing.

The Black actor, Gregory, was sent to jail. The White actor, Brando, was not.

With the ruling of the Boldt Decision, the Fish War intensified to the point when each side of the conflict tried to catch the last fish.

The Boldt Decision spawned a mass of lawsuits that eventually affirmed the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979. A 1994 decision allowed the tribes to gather shellfish on private lands. A 2013 injunction forced the state to replace culverts that blocked fish passage.

Despite these lawsuits, the Puget Sound Chinook, chum, steelhead and bull trout have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species act.

Meanwhile, in 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which allows seals and sea lions to harvest as many salmon as all the humans combined.

While the ongoing mismanagement of our fisheries is foreshadowing the eventual extinction of the five species of salmon that inhabit Washington, there is a new species that is doing quite well. These are the paper salmon that exist somewhere in the co-manager’s dreams — such as the 400,000 paper salmon that are supposed to return to the Elwha River after dam removal.


The Boldt Decision did affirm one enduring truth: Half of nothing is nothing.

We might just as well have awarded the tribes half of the buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains. It’s the least we could do.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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