Go fish: The government's answer to depleted stocks

While officials are calling for a moratorium on commercial salmon fishing along much of the West Coast, they're opting for a different tactic in Puget Sound: continued fishing.
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A Puget Sound salmon catch, date unknown. (University of Washington)

While officials are calling for a moratorium on commercial salmon fishing along much of the West Coast, they're opting for a different tactic in Puget Sound: continued fishing.

Things are tough for chinook salmon — and chinook fishers — on the West Coast. The Pacific Fishery Management Council (NMFS) has voted to ban all commercial salmon fishing and severely restrict recreational salmon fishing from California up to Oregon's Cape Falcon, which lies just a little south of Cannon Beach.

Last year, the Central Valley fall chinook run inexplicably crashed. Returns were down by roughly 90 percent. The Klamath River run, farther north, had already experienced a well-documented crisis in recent years. But the Central Valley run is California's largest. That chinook is caught up and down the coast, almost as far north as the Columbia River. NMFS will have the final say on a ban, so commercial and sport fishers in California and southern Oregon may be out of luck.

But Puget Sound chinook haven't experienced any such sharp drop. They are simply depleted. Therefore, says NMFS, people can keep catching them — just not very many of them, by historical standards, anyway.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the treaty Indian tribes negotiated the plan in 2004. The feds, reviewing it for compliance with the Endangered Species Act, gave it their seal of approval. The current plan runs through April, 2010. It forms part of the "Shared Strategy" that is supposed to govern Puget Sound chinook recovery. If there's a conflict between the harvest plan — technically, the Resource Management Plan — and the rest of the Shared Strategy, the harvest plan takes precedence.

Federal courts have deferred to NMFS's expertise on Puget Sound, to the protest of environmental groups. On March 21, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik granted summary judgment to the National and Oceanic Administration, throwing out a suit by the Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, Wild Fish Conservancy, the Native Fish Society and the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers that had challenged the agency's approval of a harvest management plan for Puget Sound chinook.

The environmental groups argued that by approving the plan and issuing a biological opinion saying it would not jeopardize the recovery of Puget Sound chinook, the agency had violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Endangered Species Act.

They pointed out, among other things, that the plan would allow people to catch up to 76 percent of the chinook returning to some streams. Somehow, harvest "is never a problem," Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee says. "I bet that's what they said about the passenger pigeon and the buffalo, the Atlantic salmon and the Atlantic cod." It's not just a matter of numbers, Beardslee explains. It's also a matter of preserving genetic diversity, which a harvest aimed at larger, more aggressive fish tends to destroy. As the salmon face challenges from climate change and human population growth, he suggests, they may need all the genetic diversity they can get. Besides, despite the assumption that, as he puts it, "every extra fish is a wasted fish," those excess salmon actually help restore streams by bringing in nutrients from the deep ocean. "They're restoring habitat themselves," Beardslee says.

The courts defer to NMFS's expertise. (This is settled law.) The agency defers to decisions reached by the state and tribes. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, the normal limits on "take" of threatened or endangered species "do not apply to actions undertaken in compliance with a resource management plan developed jointly by the States of Washington, Oregon and/or Idaho and the Tribes (joint plan) within the continuing jurisdiction of United States v. Washington or United States v. Oregon, the on-going Federal court proceedings to enforce and implement reserved treaty fishing rights."

The law does require the Secretary of the Interior to find "that implementing and enforcing the joint tribal/state plan will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery." But this doesn't turn out to set a very high bar. NMFS didn't take the advice of its technical recovery team about the chinook harvest plan, but hey, the agency considered it, and that's all the law requires. Beardslee says, ironically, "As long as the recovery plan doesn't appreciably reduce the chance of recover, it's a success." The citizens who shell out tax dollars to protect salmon and habitat don't realize how their government approaches the subject of recovery, Beardslee says. If "they only knew how low the bar is."

Canadians keep catching Puget Sound chinook, too. Wild Fish Conservancy has pointed out that U.S. negotiators basically gave Canada a right to take threatened Puget Sound chinook off Vancouver Island in exchange for a U.S. right to take sockeye returning to the Fraser River. (The Fraser River has always produced most of the "Puget Sound" commercial catch.) We're not catching those threatened salmon, so we don't have to worry about them. "This is a shell game," Beardslee says. The conservation groups that sued over the harvest plan argued that since Canadians were catching even more Puget Sound chinook than anticipated, NMFS should take another look at the impact of additional fishing in the Sound. The agency responded basically that because Canadian harvest was a year-to-year effect, it shouldn't be incorporated into a multi-year analysis.

Neither the tribes nor the non-tribal commercial fishers ever showed much concern about the genetics of wild salmon until it became politically advantageous for them to do so. Even now, they — quite understandably — negotiate for opportunities to catch as many fish, of whatever origin, as possible. This plan gives them cover: There's not enough habitat, so there's no need to preserve more fish.

"As NMFS notes," Lasnik wrote, "given the uncertainty of when, and if at all, the habitat improvements may be made ... 'using current conditions ... facilitates recovery if the hoped-for habitat improvements occur.'" Huh? If NMFS insisted on a conservative harvest plan (that is, one that allowed people to catch few fish) in order to compensate for the degraded condition of freshwater habitat, that statement might make sense. But NMFS seems to be saying that because the habitat is bad, we'll let people catch more fish, which will help the fish populations recover if habitat ever improves. The habitat won't improve substantially for at least 20 or 30 years. The bottom line: no need to sacrifice now; maybe your kids will have to sacrifice sometime after 2030, when the habitat has improved. Then again, maybe they won't. This is the kind of recovery planning that anyone — anyone except a Puget Sound chinook —could love.

In the meantime, let's catch some fish. It's kind of like the George W. Bush approach to crisis: Fanatics topple the World Trade Center? Go shopping. A century and a half of habitat destruction and over-harvest send wild Puget Sound chinook to the brink of extinction? Go fishing.

"Achieving these goals under current conditions is a necessary step to eventual recovery when habitat and other conditions are more favorable," NMFS argued. In other words, it may be inadequate, but it's a step toward adequacy. That sounds like a joke about modern child-rearing: No dear, that won't help the salmon recover, but I'm sure it's a step toward something that will.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.