The Pacific Northwest is salmon land, especially for Indigenous nations. Salmon is central to the work of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), where Aja DeCoteau is watershed department manager.
Formed in 1977, CRITFC is a group of four tribes in the Columbia River basin — the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce nations — advocating for tribal treaty rights. As DeCoteau explained, “Salmon is what our organization is about and who we are as a people.” By returning fish to rivers, protecting tribal fishing rights, and supporting tribal fisherpeople, the commission works across science, policy, and religion to protect traditional ways of life.
A core piece of CRITFC’s work is collecting scientific data. From estuary research and genetics work to climate modeling, their researchers are studying salmon and their land to better prepare for predicted climate shifts.
DeCoteau’s biggest project is updating CRITFC’s Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon) plan, an innovative, 25-year project following the salmon’s life cycle that ends this year. Climate change will be at the forefront of the new plan. The tribes have always been climate leaders because “we’ve been adapting to a changing climate since time immemorial,” DeCoteau remarked. “We now see more alignment with others in how we manage our tribal resources for future generations.”
CRITFC’s work extends throughout the Columbia River basin, joining 15 other tribes and even Indigenous nations in Canada to advocate for a voice in the Columbia River Treaty renewal in 2024. Collectively, DeCoteau hopes the commission will join the U.S. and Canadian governments to discuss the future of dams on the Columbia River.
Beyond CRITFC, DeCoteau is a board member at Earthjustice, where “her expertise in tribal natural resource management provides critically important insights and experience to staff and board members alike,” says N. Bruce Duthu, fellow board member and Native American studies professor at Dartmouth College.
As DeCoteau thinks about what’s next for CRITFC, she says, “The greatest strategy for looking at climate change is to look at the youth.” She hopes to empower tribal youth so they can lead everyone to a brighter future.