IT'S FOUR IN THE MORNING, and traffic over the new First Avenue South bridge is as sparse as it ever gets. Down by the river, a fish cutter in blood-stained rain gear slices off the head of a king salmon and flops it onto the scale. Sixteen pounds, headed and gutted. "Fishin's been steady all night," he reports.

On board a 15-foot skiff strewn with gill net, flotation corks, and a pile of dead fish, two men fill up a container with king salmon. The load is lifted by crane and weighed: 92 fish, 571 pounds. The fish are then dumped onto an aluminum sorting tray, where three people try to distinguish the tagged hatchery fish, which were raised by scientists, from the wild fish, which are some of the last few remaining wild kings in Puget Sound.

Both the hatchery fish and the wild fish are selling for a buck a pound.

Last week, six months after the federal government listed the king salmon of Puget Sound as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the Muckleshoot Tribe came to Seattle to fish king salmon. In just six hours, with a fleet of 25 skiffs working the Duwamish-Green River and about a dozen gill netters out in Elliott Bay, the tribe caught more than 2,000 king salmon, roughly half of them endangered wild fish.

Aside from one leaky skiff that nearly sunk on the river, the Muckleshoots did well, running an orderly fishery, remarkably free of controversy.

After the seemingly endless battles over the death of one gray whale at the hands of the Makah tribe last spring, there was practically no opposition to the Muckleshoot fishery, even though the gray whale is no longer considered an endangered species and the Puget Sound king salmon is.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of guiding the recovery of the Puget Sound kings, did not interfere with the tribe's fishery. Neither did the local politicians who have pledged to spend millions to bring salmon back to local waters, or the many environmental groups committed to doing the same. "The mayor's position is that this is a decision between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the tribe," says Dick Lilly of Seattle Public Utilities. "We sit on the sidelines on these things."

Even the historically anti-Indian sports fishing groups and the no-compromise radical greens were nowhere to be found as the Muckleshoots hauled in one skiff after another filled with dead kings.

Maybe a couple thousand fish just aren't as sacred as one big sensitive whale. Or maybe people learned something from the Makah mess.

"You oughta bring a big pot out here so we can cook up these fish heads," an old-time fisherman tells the fish-cutter. But he shies away from an interview, saying, "I ain't talking to nobody. I ain't giving my secrets away."

Andy So Happy is less wary. "The way I see it," he says, "the city moved right onto the fishing grounds. It's like during the whale hunt. People said that we should go to Albertson's or QFC to get our food like everyone else. Well, the river is our QFC."

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt reaffirmed an 1854 treaty negotiated between Northwest tribes and Washington's first governor, Isaac Stevens. The Boldt decision, one of the most controversial rulings in the history of the Northwest, opened up half of the harvestable salmon in the state to the tribes, even though the vast majority of fishermen in the state were and are white. The 1,400-member Muckleshoot Tribe, which had previously been limited to fishing the White River that runs through their reservation near Auburn, gained rights to fish all of its ancestral grounds, including Lake Washington, Elliott Bay, and the Duwamish-Green River.

Northwest natives like So Happy take these rights seriously. He's been arrested and hauled off to jail on several occasions for exercising his fishing rights. "A treaty's just like a contract," he says. "You can't break it. We've got a treaty from 1855 says we can fish this river. Before they can stop Indians from fishing they have to tear all this down -- all the dams, the highways, the industry. Our treaty precedes all of it."

It is baffling that king salmon continue to return to Seattle at all. They rely on good estuary habitat that has long since been paved over here, replaced with polluting industries, asphalt, and concrete.

Amazingly, Green River kings are doing better than any other Puget Sound kings. The river's salmon runs are co-managed by the state and the Muckleshoots -- the one tribe that holds treaty rights to fish here. "The Green River stock appears to be about the healthiest stock that we have," says Jacques White, the staff biologist of People For Puget Sound. "Some people attribute that to careful management by the Muckleshoot Tribe."

The state's decision to allow the tribe one six-hour fishery was based on a series of test fisheries conducted in Elliott Bay over four consecutive Wednesday nights. According to Paul Hage, a fish biologist for the tribe, the numbers of fish caught in the test fisheries indicated that "although the run is less than was forecast, there is still enough abundance to have one treaty fishery. There are harvestable fish in the Green River, and if there are harvestable fish in the Green River, then the tribe should be able to exercise its treaty rights."

Gilbert King George, a 61-year-old Muckleshoot elder, credits the commercial fishery that developed after the Boldt decision with giving the Muckleshoots the economic boost that allowed them to expand their economy, build a casino, and start to determine their own destiny as a sovereign people. "Prior to the Boldt decision, welfare was the norm," says King George. "We wrote the book on welfare reform."

They also wrote the book on sustainable salmon fishing. That's why the greens and the pols were well advised to look the other way when the Muckleshoots went out on the water to kill fish last week. Ultimately, the goal of the tribe is the same as that of the greens: A restored river, with salmon in it.

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