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Indian Fishing Rights: A Lost Opportunity for Ecosystem Management

18 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2013  

Martin H. Belsky

University of Akron - School of Law

Date Written: 1996


Today, the depletion of salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Northwest United States is a concern not only to commercial fishers whose livelihoods depend on the resource but also to conservationists who fear the endangerment or extinction of the species. The implementation of a comprehensive approach to fisheries management could have reduced this threat of depletion. The federal courts had the opportunity to promote regulation and conservation of the fisheries in two cases, Sohappy v. Smith and United States v. Washington (Boldt), but failed to adopt an effective management model that would address the environmental concerns of the fisheries as a whole. In these cases, Indian fishers in Oregon and Washington sought to enforce historic treaty fishing rights and invalidate state regulations that infringed upon their rights to resource allocation and habitat protection. Although the courts determined how fishery resources should be allocated among treaty and non-treaty fishers, only one court specifically addressed habitat protection and was later reversed on the issue. That court attempted to implement a conservation program that followed the basic tenets of what is now known as the Ecosystem Management Model.

This article gives a brief overview of the history of the decisions and the federal legislation that stemmed from them and discusses the Ecosystem Management Model with respect to fishery protection. Part II provides a historical overview of the decision addressing the rights of Indian fishers, focusing on the Boldt and Sohappy decisions. Additionally, Part II recounts the legislative measures taken in response to these decisions. Part III describes the Ecosystem Management Model and its interplay with fisheries management. Finally, Part IV concludes that the rejection of the ecosystem approach may result in the serious and permanent depletion of fisheries.

Keywords: ecosystem management, Native Americans, hunting and fishing rights, land use, environmental

JEL Classification: K32

Suggested Citation

Belsky, Martin H., Indian Fishing Rights: A Lost Opportunity for Ecosystem Management (1996). Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, Vol. 12, 1996. Available at SSRN:

Martin H. Belsky (Contact Author)

University of Akron - School of Law ( email )

150 University Ave.
Akron, OH 44325-2901
United States

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