This article was reported with support from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Hidden amid the pleasure boats and cargo ships that roar through the canal in northwest Seattle is one of the oldest fishing economies in North America. From midsummer to October, from early morning until after dusk, fishermen from the Suquamish Tribe zoom up and down the canal in orange waterproof overalls, tending to salmon nets that dangle across the water like strings of pearls. The tribe holds reservation land about ten miles west of the city, on the far side of Puget Sound, the 100-mile-long estuary that extends from Olympia, Washington, north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Suquamish are one of more than a dozen tribes that have fishing and shellfish-harvesting rights all across this region, and their fishing traditions, which are thousands of years old, predate all of the oldest shipyard industries here.
The men unload salmon at “A Dock,” a section of a boatyard reserved for tribal fishing boats. This is where I find longtime fisherman Willy Pratt on a late September morning, at the back of a parking lot on a wooden platform that overlooks the gleaming luxury yachts of the adjacent marina. Pratt has fished in Puget Sound his whole life, and he is here for the peak of coho salmon migration, which pulses through the inner part of the estuary this month. Pratt has marked the nickname Coho Willy in hot pink tape on the side of the giant blue cooler he plans to fill with the fish that his nephews net that day. He holds up a photo of himself as a 6-year-old boy leaning against a boat on the beach. “This is me in 1949,” he says. “This is my grandfather’s skiff.”
The sale of fish caught here contributes to basic living expenses for the fishermen—and some of their catch becomes food for their extended families and circles of friends. According to one survey, the average Suquamish tribal member eats fourteen pounds of fish and shellfish every month (about as much as the average American consumes over a whole year). But this way of life is fragile next to a city like Seattle. The sound’s slate blue waters hold one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America; even in the heart of the city there are multitudes of fish and shellfish, which feed resident populations of orcas, seals and sea lions and support a multimillion-dollar commercial fishing industry. But Puget Sound is in “critical condition,” according to a state agency that monitors ecosystem health. When I ask Pratt how water quality affects people like him, whose lives depend on fish, he narrows his eyes. “What water quality?” he asks, his face wizened and skeptical. “Put your net in, and it comes back covered” in sludge, he says. “It’s like cobwebs, except it’s brown. It’s progressively been getting worse all the time—last thirty, forty years.” The fishermen carry tennis rackets with them in the boats; they slap them against the nets to knock the muck off—otherwise the salmon will steer clear of the grimy mesh.