An An Indigenous nation turns to a new legal tactic in hopes of saving a beleaguered salmon population: it is suing on behalf of the salmon, alleging that dams preventing them from migrating violate the “inherent rights of fish to exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve”.
The lawsuit is part of the growing “nature rights” movement, a legal theory that seeks to give natural entities, such as rivers, plants or animals, legal rights similar to those of humans.
The salmon, called TsuladxW in the Lushootseed language of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, are named as plaintiffs in the case. Diked rivers in Washington state no longer provide enough salmon for the tribe to hold all of its ceremonies, let alone feed its members, and scientists have determined that nearby dams are hurting the salmon population.
The tribe argues that the dams violate TsuladxW’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizures and their rights to due process.
Jack Fiander, a tribesman and attorney representing the tribe in the lawsuit, said the tribe requires the owner of the three dams – the city of Seattle – and the courts to recognize the rights the tribe has always believed the fish to have. .
“People need to know these are our laws and if you enter our territory and do things that affect us, you need to know our laws and show us respect,” Fiander said. “These tribal beliefs should not be ridiculed. They are based on ancestral knowledge that should not be overlooked.
The nature rights movement has only recently gained traction in the United States.
Ecuador granted legal rights to all natural beings in its constitution in 2008 and an Indian court gave legal personality to two rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, in 2017.
In the United States, some local governments have attempted to pass laws that grant legal rights to natural features, such as the city of Toledo granting a “Bill of Rights” to Lake Erie in 2019 (it was struck down by a federal judge one year later) . But the U.S. nature rights movement has been largely led by lawyers and Native American tribes like the White Earth Nation, a tribe in Minnesota that passed a law in 2018 recognizing manoomin, a wild rice sacred to nature. tribe, as having inherent legal rights. .
Last summer, the tribe sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on behalf of the manoomin, arguing that a recent permit for a new gas pipeline violated rice’s right to “exist and thrive.”
The Seattle utility asked a federal judge to dismiss the Sauk-Suiattle case, arguing that the city’s Skagit River dams are outside the tribe’s jurisdiction. The utility declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement to the Guardian that it “appreciates our longstanding relationship with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and continues to work closely with the Sauk-Suiattle and other tribes on many issues related to hydroelectricity. operations, including the protection and enhancement of fish populations”.
The Minnesota pipeline and Skagit River dams are already subject to numerous environmental regulations, but conservationists say these existing protections are inadequate because there is little recourse when regulators neglect or weaken the rules. . For example, Seattle negotiated an agreement in 1995 with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that allows the city to damage salmon habitat by draining part of the Skagit River, even though salmon from the river are listed in the Endangered Species Act.
If the salmon or the river had their own rights, there would be a legal avenue to demand environmental justice whenever a regulator ignores protections, according to Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of SJ Quinney College of Law at the University of ‘Utah.
“People will end up negotiating and negotiating for something that might be in their best interests rather than the river’s,” Kronk Warner said. “Ultimately, an individual acting in an individual capacity will simply not be able to protect the rights of nature in the same way that the natural element itself can.”
Seattle is currently negotiating a new license with FERC that could last up to 50 years. With wild salmon gone, Fiander said the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe can no longer trust agencies like FERC to protect their sacred fish.
“You cannot rely on this federal agency to do the right thing. They take commercial considerations into account and so it is appropriate to use these other legal means,” Fiander said. “What Seattle is doing could last 50 years and the salmon could be extinct in 10 or 15 years.”