Inside the National Guard Armory at Okanogan, Wash., Leroy and Mylan Williams teach a small crowd of onlookers the nearly lost art of building fish nets by hand. The father and son are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation and are teaching other tribal members how to build and use traditional fishing gear.
"We're doing this is in anticipation of the new hatchery that's going in because it will mean a larger number of salmon coming up stream," says 33-year-old Mylan Williams.
After nearly a decade of design and construction, the new Chief Joseph Hatchery, located near Bridgeport, Wash. is nearing completion. In a joint effort funded by BPA, Grant County Public Utility District and the Colville Tribes, the project is expected to be completed in February 2013, said BPA in a recent press release.
As the new hatchery moves closer to reality, tribal members anticipate the significant numbers of salmon that biologists predict it will produce some day.
In preparing for the arrival of the fish, the Williams are travelling throughout the Colville Reservation teaching their tribal brethren the aboriginal way of building nets. The father and son are some of the last Colville tribal members who possess the ancient skills.
The elder Williams says declining salmon populations in the upper Columbia over the last century has meant fewer tribal members learned the old fishing methods. "We're at the tail end of the fish run way up here; a lot of people thought it had died out so they didn't bother learning net building. We'd like to revive that."
Over the last 70 years, hydropower development caused losses to tribal fisheries in the Upper Columbia region. As a result, a disconnection emerged between Colville tribal members and their fishing heritage. Tribal members want to rebuild Upper Columbia wild salmon runs while harvesting their share of the hatchery produced fish. Dipnets, seines and hoopnets offer an opportunity to take a portion of the hatchery-produced fish while supporting the rebuild of naturally spawning populations.
Through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, BPA, said the press release, supports the net building educational classes as part of the Live Capture Gear Deployment project.
Last summer the Williams caught 50 summer steelhead using their handmade nets and were successful at harvesting hatchery fish while releasing the wild ones. As part of the program, BPA is also funding construction of a small number of fishing scaffolds along the upper river.
BPA project manager Dave Roberts says the agency is supporting the Colville peoples' rediscovery of the ways their ancestors fished. "Funding tribal members to teach the construction and use of traditional fishing gears, like dipnets and hoopnets, is an important contribution to reconnecting people with their aboriginal fishing heritage," says Roberts.
As the younger Williams describes it, long ago his ancestors made net frames out of large willow branches and used hemp and braided willow for net mesh and rope. These days, in their net-building classes, the father and son teach others to use more modern materials, such as spring steel for frames and nylon gill net for mesh. But the basic construction and use haven't changed for centuries.
The elder Williams, who was born in 1946, fondly remembers his uncles fishing traditionally with huge hoop nets and 30 to 40-foot-long dip nets the men had made.
He says his family taught him the art, he taught his son and now the two of them want to pass it on.
"I was told by my uncles that they can't take all of this information with them and that it's passed down from generation to generation, so I'd like to keep that going," says Williams.
When completed next year, the Chief Joseph Hatchery will ultimately release nearly three-million spring and summer chinook in the upper Columbia and Okanogan rivers. Biologists estimate tens of thousands of those fish will be available for Colville tribal members to harvest.
The elder Williams says he, his son and others will be eagerly waiting for the fish with their new nets. "There's going to be a large influx of salmon at that time. And we want as many of our membership to fish like this, the old traditional way," he says.