The Washington Spectator, November 1, 2013
By Lou Dubose
At dusk on a warm Wednesday afternoon in September, a Lummi couple in their sixties had just finished picking kelp out of a gill net they had stretched out into Bellingham Bay. The wind was calm and the water so clear that every stone on the bottom was visible. The incoming tide was flowing north along the peninsula that makes up most of the Lummi Nation, in the direction of the Nooksack River, the net straining against six long branches that anchored it to the bottom.
A dozen silver salmon were spread out on a pile of kelp. The man pulled a small shark out of the boat and dropped it on the bank. The woman climbed onto a log and yelled at another fisherman who was tossing kelp into the current. She spotted a harbor seal swimming toward the shore.
“Look at that,” she said. “If they’re not eating the salmon, they’re playing in your nets.”
But for the weathered, ’80s-vintage fiberglass boat powered by a small outboard, I might have been looking at a sepia-toned photograph of Coast Salish Indians fishing as they fished for a thousand years before 1885, when their chiefs accepted the inevitability of white settlement, signed the Point Elliot Treaty, and the tribes retreated to reservations.
The couple were subsistence fishers—filling their freezer with salmon and selling part of their catch out of an ice chest. But many of the Lummi earn their living fishing. The professionals were gill-netting in the river or working reef nets in the bay.
No one would describe these waters as pristine. A few miles north of the spot where the gill netters were fishing, BP and Phillips 66 operate refineries and tanker terminals, and Alcoa produces 260,000 metric tons of aluminum a year.
But a coal-export terminal that will connect the strip mines of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to coal-fired electricity plants in China is a greater threat to these fisheries and the regional environment than two refineries and a smelter. The terminal is a threat that extends beyond the Pacific Northwest and beyond China. The Powder River Basin is a carbon reserve with the potential to heat the planet past the point that our civilizations can withstand.