David Bean remembers when his family didn’t have enough room for all the salmon in their boat.
“We caught so much fish that we had to call folks to bring their skiffs over,” said Bean, chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “I remember one, we overflowed that skiff so much to one side it flipped over and we lost one skiff-load of salmon. But we still had three.”
The waters in and around Tacoma have changed since then. Still, efforts made in recent years have spurred progress.
Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay, says there are currently 108 species of fish in the Foss Waterway, whales are coming by more regularly and a recent group of campers exploring tidepools even discovered oysters.
“Which is a sign that the water has come a long way and is much cleaner,” Malott said.
Like many port cities on the West Coast, Tacoma is rethinking its relationship to the water, cleaning up decades of pollution to create an environment that’s healthy for marine life and inviting for people.
KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp recently went out on the water with Bean and Malott, as part of our KNKX Connects reporting project focusing on Tacoma stories. Both of them are invested in improving and maintaining the health of Commencement Bay. Malott's organization does so-called "pollution patrols;" much of the surrounding land belongs to the Puyallup Tribe.
“We have to clean up these waters and protect them so they can be resilient to the challenges that climate change is bringing,” Malott said, during a boat tour of the bay.
Bean says healthy water — and by extension, healthy salmon — are important parts of his native culture.
“Our creation stories connect us to the salmon,” he said. “Our responsibility when they come back every year is to welcome these honored guests to celebrate them and tell these stories.”
But their numbers have dwindled, as has the population of shellfish.
Despite the progress made to clean up superfund sites around Commencement Bay, Malott says she’s still concerned about the level of contamination in our water and food sources.
She says she often sees people on the dock in front of her organization’s office who are subsistence fishing — living off of the protein from the fish they’re catching in the Foss Waterway.
“That means they are getting extra high doses of the contaminants in those fish,” Malott said. “We need to have more protective standards of fish consumption and how much toxins we are OK with having in fish. It should be a much lower amount.”
Bean, the tribal chairman, echoed her statements. He says his tribe has survived off the land and the water, and they’ve fought hard for their treaty rights.
“As a child, in the early 70s, (I) was right on the heels of some major fishing wars,” Bean said. “I witnessed battles as a child at 7 years old.”
Now, he and others are fighting to maintain the integrity of our natural resources.
Listen to the full conversation above.