Four years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a fish processing facility at White Salmon, Tribal Fish Company LLC has been formed with two representatives each from four Columbia River treaty fishing tribes.
Soon after the corporation was proposed in the fall of 2007, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation appointed two people to serve as advisers. The Nez Perce appointed two people in August of 2009, and recently the Warm Springs and Yakamas have joined in the process.
"We finally got all four tribes to pass a resolution and identify board members," said Kat Brigham, a Umatilla Tribes member elected secretary of the corporation.
At its first meeting in July, the corporation elected: Virgil Lewis, Yakama, president; Ryan Smith, Warm Springs, vice-president; Brigham, secretary; and Larry Green, Nez Perce, sergeant at arms.
The next meeting is planned Aug. 17 at the Nixyaawii Governance Center on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
"We'll be looking at options for the near and long term," Brigham said. "We want to create a facility that will help tribal fishers better market their product. We have some paperwork to do with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and we want to sign an MOU so CRITFC (Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission) can help us with our initial organization, and we're hoping to have those things completed in August."
As envisioned, the tribal corporation would operate the $4.2-million fish processing facility built in 2006 by the Corps of Engineers for the benefit of tribal fishers from the lower Columbia River treaty fishing tribes.
The 8,000-square-foot facility includes cutting/gutting tables, a blast freezer, refrigeration unit and freezer, and commercial-grade ice machines. In the last three years, the primary function of the facility has been to produce ice.
In an interview last fall, Paul Lumley, executive director at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the fish processing facility is a "fantastic economic development opportunity" that could "create well-paying jobs." Further, he said, the facility is a means for tribes to exercise their treaty fishing rights while giving fishers direct access to commercial markets.
"I cannot imagine a better scenario for tribes to enter into an economic development venture," Lumley said.
It will be the first time that the four CRITFC tribes have partnered in an economic development initiative.
Marcus Luke, a Umatilla appointee to the Fish Processing Board, who fishes with family members east of Hood River, agreed with Lumley's assessment.
"We all know our fishermen need ice and that's only the beginning. Maybe later on we could employ many tribal members, provide better fish prices and bite into the bigger market," Luke said. "The facility is big enough for many ideas, maybe even a place to cut, clean and fillet, or freeze under one roof. Maybe we could establish new resources with canners, smokers, and sell ice all year long to local entities."
A feasibility study completed in 2007 projected that the plant could initially buy whole fish from tribal fishers and sell headed and gutted fish to a primarily Northwest market. Later on, the plant could add products like fillets.
As initially envisioned, the facility would be operated for and by tribal fishers. According to planning documents, up to 800,000 pounds -- that's about 40,000 20-pound salmon -- could be processed in the first year of the new facility, which would be FDA food-safety compliant.
Because it is a non-profit entity, CRITFC will not be involved in the business end of the operation.
But Lumley said the four tribes are in a position to take advantage of land, the building and equipment already in place.
"There is no initial capital investment and over $550,000 in operational funds that have already been established," Lumley said. "We are well on our way."
Each tribe has committed $7,500 for initial capitalization.
Luke said operation of the fish facility by tribal fishers could have a snowball effect economically and could improve partnerships.
"The local economy could benefit throughout the seasons because Indian people already buy at local grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, marine supplies, school shopping, autos, etc., and maybe it could help improve relationships -- tribal and non-tribal. This can be whatever we want it to be," Luke said.
By the end of last fall, the BIA estimated to have provided about 400,000 pounds of ice to tribal fishers at Celilo and Stanley Rock treat-access fishing sites. The facility is expected to provide ice again in August 2010 for fishers on the Columbia River.