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A landmark lawsuit filed by the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe asserting the “rights of salmon” has been settled, with the city of Seattle agreeing to provide passageways for the fish around hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River.

In the suit, filed against the city last year in a tribal court, the Sauk-Suiattle argued that the three dams impede the upstream migration of salmon and block the flow of nutrients that the fish need to grow, contributing to a decline in the population. The tribe also contended that the dams, built in the early to mid-20th century, violated a treaty giving the Sauk-Suiattle the legal right to fish in the Skagit River for salmon, an important food source for the tribe that is deeply entwined with its culture.

Although the lawsuit is one of four to be filed by the Sauk-Suiattle over the city-owned dams, it is the only one in tribal court. It was dubbed the “rights of salmon” case because it sought a declaration by the city that the fish “possess inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery and preservation.”

The settlement came just ahead of an April 21 hearing before the Sauk-Suiattle tribal appellate court over whether the panel had jurisdiction over the city of Seattle. The three hydroelectric dams are located around 100 miles northeast of the city and provide about 20 percent of its electricity.

As part of the agreement, the city agreed to include passages for fish at the three dams in its final license application filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, which approves hydroelectric projects under the Federal Power Act. The dams’ existing licenses expire on April 30, 2025, and the city is seeking a 50-year renewal.

The settlement did not yield the declaration sought from the city acknowledging the rights of salmon, however.

The case springs in part from an unwritten law of the Sauk-Suiattle that holds that the salmon are living beings and is one of at least three recent legal battles in the U.S. to enforce the “rights of nature” in response to threats facing wild animals, plants and aquatic ecosystems like rivers and lakes. Like humans, the legal argument goes, flora and fauna and complex ecosystems have distinct inalienable rights particular to their essence.

Salmon fishermen in 1906 display their catch at the mouth of the Skagit River. (Photo courtesy of The Museum of History and Industry)

The second enforcement case, filed in 2021 in the White Earth Nation tribal court, sought to enforce the rights of wild rice after the state of Minnesota issued a construction permit allowing a company to pump nearly 5 billion gallons of groundwater during a drought.

Wild rice—or Manoomim, to the tribe—needs vast amounts of water to grow and is sacred to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. The tribal appellate court dismissed the case, ruling that it did not have jurisdiction over the nontribal defendants: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, its commissioner, and its employees.

The third enforcement case was filed in April 2021 on behalf of five waterways and an environmentalist against a developer in central Florida over a construction project near Orlando that environmental advocates said could cut off the flow of water to lakes and marshes and destroy over 60 acres of wetlands. That lawsuit, grounded in a referendum passed by Orange County voters affirming the rights of nature, was dismissed after the Florida Legislature passed a law prohibiting local jurisdictions from recognizing those rights. That case is currently under appeal.

Elsewhere, the rights of nature have also been recognized at the national or local level in countries ranging from Ecuador and Panama to Spain, India and New Zealand. In some cases, governments adopted laws for the express purpose of incorporating the cultural values of the Indigenous peoples who were colonized by European governments over the centuries for the abuses they suffered.

In Washington state, the settlement of the salmon case marks a turning point in a long-running dispute over hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River. Three Native American peoples—the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe—have argued that the dams were built in violation of their rights to be consulted about such projects.

In recent years, the tribes and a coalition of scientists, environmentalists and rights activists have opposed the city of Seattle’s application to renew its licenses for the dams under the Federal Power Act.

While the dams are not located on a reservation, they affect the tribes’ rights, including their right to fish under an 1855 treaty, according to the Sauk-Suiattle’s complaint. That argument is based on a theory of “long arm jurisdiction” that is common in U.S. product liability cases and allows parties to sue a defendant in another jurisdiction for acts that cause harm to the plaintiff.

Thomas Linzey, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said that this legal strategy emanated from Montana v. United States, a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that in some circumstances, tribes could exercise authority over nonmembers whose conduct on the reservation “threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health and welfare of the tribe.”

Mari Margil, executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, said the accord could have a broader impact.

“We hope that this is the first of many rights of nature cases that result in real, practical steps towards protecting the rights of ecosystems and species,” she said. ”The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe’s pursuit of this lawsuit, coupled with the continuing decades-long efforts of the Skagit River Tribes to enforce the rights of tribal members, created the environment for this settlement to happen. It sets a framework for other campaigns to follow.”

The settlement resolves two of at least four lawsuits involving the Skagit River dams. The other two, filed in state court in Washington, are still pending: One argues that the city’s branding of its hydroelectric projects as environmentally friendly violates consumer protection laws, and the other contends that the projects violate state laws that prohibit the blockage of waterways where salmon migrate.

For years, the city of Seattle had fiercely resisted requests to remove the dams or install fish passageways, citing both the costs and research that it said showed that salmon never migrated upriver beyond the dams. Independent scientists and scientists with regulatory agencies and the tribes criticized the research, calling it outdated and biased.

Jack Fiander, the Sauk-Suiattle’s tribal attorney and a member of the Yakama Nation, said that a range of factors led to the city’s agreement to install the fish passageways, including the multiple court cases and the insistence by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that those paths be created.

Giving the salmon passage to migrate further upriver to spawn is expected to increase the population, with potential benefits for eagles and for orcas and other marine animals that feed on the fish. A greater abundance of salmon will also in theory help sustain the tribes that inhabit the Skagit River basin and rely on the fish for their livelihoods as well as food.

Fiander said the litigation had served an important purpose in educating the public about the beliefs of the Sauk-Suiattle and other tribes. “Citizens who have a say in public policies were able to learn about how tribal people view nature and that these views and beliefs have merit,” he said. “Historically, tribes kept their cultural and religious beliefs secret within the tribe to protect them against suppression.”

With climate change awakening much of the world to environmental perils, Fiander said, “the Sauk-Suiattle tribe felt it was time to share this information with other people.”

Lead image: Salmon swim home to spawn in an Oregon river. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)