Doug Davis has been fishing his whole life. He’s made a living harvesting fish, shellfish and crabs throughout Willapa Bay. His father and grandfather before him did the same while passing on traditions. “On my dad’s side, I guess the generations go back for infinity,” Doug says. “I grew up with it.”
He might say the same about leadership for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, located on the north shores of Willapa Bay. Doug’s father was tribal chairman. Doug served several terms as chairman in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, in addition to other leadership roles.
The bay and the community are intimately linked in Shoalwater tradition. “My dad would share what he could with the elderly and others in our community who couldn’t go fish or dig up shellfish for themselves. I’ve taken that over. I just wish I could give more.”
When you spend years on the water, you notice changes. When the number of boats increased in Willapa Bay, Doug saw more trash and pollution. “I remember in the 1960s the boat basins were full of oil. Even as a kid I wouldn’t swim there because of the taste.”
Doug says things are getting better. “The water is definitely cleaner. You don’t see as much garbage on the beaches.” But the number of boats in the bay is still increasing, and the increase in use brings risks. “I think our history of pollution has had a dramatic affect. We don’t see as many young critters as we used to.”
Willapa Bay is a vital estuary. As Doug puts it, “It is a nursery for everything in the ocean in this area,” including crabs, salmon, halibut, octopuses, anchovies, herring, ling cod and sea bass. Toxins from sources like spilled oil and gas are absorbed by the creatures in this shallow bay.
Doug would have people look at what used to live in Willapa Bay and ask, what abundance could we have here? Not ‘what’s the minimum,’ but ‘what’s the potential’? “It’s easy to point fingers, but if our fish numbers are down we all share blame. We all need to worry about this resource.”
“I realize that I don’t own the bay, but I have a feeling of ownership. It hurts when I see people abusing what’s been provided by nature and by God. We’re just here for a visit. We need to treat this place well so the next visitors can enjoy it, too.”
Some of those future visitors are Doug’s two kids. “I take them out whenever I can.” He has also turned a hobby of coaching local youth soccer teams into a passion. “If I can have a positive impact on a child’s life, it’s my way of changing the world.”
Doug hopes his children will inherit a world that includes his tribe’s heritage. “I’m the last fisherman on the reservation trying to make a living this way. I know it’s a hard life, but it’s a good life. And it’s our tradition. I want my kids to be able to throw back that first salmon or crab of the year as an offering, just like my great, great, great, great grandfather did.”