By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
There are 30 miles of fishable streams on the Qualla Boundary. Those streams have been here for as long as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Water is not just a commodity to us. It is spiritual. It is a source of life. It is a resource for the continuation of the Tribe.
One of the many uses of our streams has been the trout and other wildlife that is sustained in our creeks and rivers. In recent years, we have developed a robust, self-sustaining industry in our Cherokee trout program – EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife program.
John Frye, a writer for Our State magazine, said, “In the deep mountains, near the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians keep some 30 miles waters within the Qualla Boundary stocked with trout. To keep the creeks, streams and rivers full of fish, they manage the Cherokee Tribal Fish Hatchery, a facility capable of raising 1-1.5 million trout. Even though capacity is a whopping one-million-plus fish, each year, Tribal Fish Hatchery rarely operates at or near capacity as a precaution for the health, and size, of the fish they raise. Instead of going for quantity, they aim for quality, with some 300,000 are fish harvested every year, a quarter-million of which go into the streams to be caught in both keeper and release waters. The process is a lengthy one, with fish going from eggs to a stock-able size in 12-14 months. The Tribal Fish Hatchery partners with other fish hatcheries as part of a National Broodstock Program to raise, and stock streams with, some of the best fish available.”
The Cherokee people continue to fish our waters and enjoy the meals provided in the form of our native and now stocked trout. In addition to the direct nourishment, the significant industry we have created around trout production has been the envy of our neighboring counties for years. Local municipalities have taken notice of the marketing of our fishing program and developed their own strategies to capitalize on fishing in not only their own streams, but also leveraging the great fishing opportunities and tourism amenities of the Qualla Boundary.
Aging, facilities and equipment have become a challenge for our fishing product. While demand for fishing permits continually increases, the Tribal Fishery is limited in its capacity. Once that capacity is reached, Fisheries must supplement our capacity by buying fish from other hatcheries, sometimes at significantly higher expense than those raised on the Boundary. The farther they must go to get a supply of trout, the more expensive the fish. Trout fishing is a year-round industry for Cherokee and has great potential for outgrowths of trout products and tourism marketing.
As a Tribe, we should be capitalizing on this multi-faceted business opportunity. In addition to the already steady growth in interest in fishing in Cherokee, we could be producing retail products for sale to restaurants and grocers. There was, at one time, a movement in the government to create an aquarium so that visitors could view wildlife that inhabit our streams like the one that draws thousands of visitors each year in Chattanooga. I believe that is an opportunity that merits at least additional consideration by our tribal leadership.
We need to provide the Tribal Fisheries the tools needed to bring the capacity up to current and future demand. We need to place high priority on revamping or relocating our hatchery with an eye toward creating a state of the art facility capable of maximizing return on our investment. As we continue to discuss opportunities for addition review income through diversifying our revenue streams, we should not neglect the great potential that resides in our Qualla Boundary trout streams. Our tribal waters are literally teeming with potential.