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Alaska Fishery Rider Revised

by CBB
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 19, 1999

A congressional Endangered Species Act waiver for the Alaskan salmon fishery has been rewritten so that instead, the federal government would have to take several actions prior to applying any additional harvest restrictions.

The original waiver for fishing conducted according to the new U.S. Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty was authored by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and backed by Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles. But it was opposed by President Clinton, the governors of Oregon and Washington and environmental groups.

Last month, Clinton vetoed the FY2000 appropriation bill for the Department of Commerce partly because of the rider and inadequate funding for implementation of the salmon treaty and West Coast salmon recovery efforts by states. White House officials said the congressional actions threatened to jeopardize the new agreement on restricting ocean harvest of endangered salmon reached with Canada this summer.

During final budget negotiations between congressional leaders and White House officials, which concluded this week, funding was increased by $18 million; the endangered species language was altered; and the National Marine Fisheries Service's budget for species recovery work was also increased. Congress was expected to give final approval to the budget agreement late this week or early next week.

To enable the National Marine Fisheries Service to deal with an expanded workload, particularly due to additional listings of Northwest salmon runs, the administration sought $55.5 million for endangered species recovery planning in FY2000. Congress approved $32.5 million, which the White House said was inadequate. The budget deal raised that to $43.5 million, a 55 percent increase over FY1999's amount.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said NMFS' Northwest office would receive a $10 million increase for this work. Murray said she had received numerous complaints from Washington state constituents about backlogs and delays in processing permits required under the ESA for activities that might harm endangered or threatened salmon.

To meet American commitments to Canada under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the administration sought $60 million but Congress provided only $10 million. The budget deal doubled the amount to $20 million.

For West Coast states and Indian tribes, Clinton proposed a new $100 million grant program for salmon habitat improvement and other projects, but Congress cut it in half. The budget negotiations added $8 million to the amounts allocated for Oregon, California and tribes.

The final allocation for coastal salmon projects is as follows: $18 million for Washington state, $14 million for Alaska, $9 million each for Oregon and California and $8 million for tribes in Oregon, Washington and California. For lower Columbia River treaty tribes another $2 million was added for tribal restoration projects, according to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

After Congress passed the appropriation bill with the Stevens rider, NMFS issued its draft biological opinion on the U.S.-Canada Salmon Treaty finding it would not jeopardized endangered salmon and in fact, would benefit listed Northwest stocks. A final bi-op was issued on Monday, and NMFS officials said it took into account a range of possible scenarios for Columbia-Snake salmon, none of which would change the opinion.

Threatened or endangered salmon stocks constitute an estimated 5 percent or 6 percent of the Alaskan salmon fishery.

Alaska officials argued they needed ironclad guarantees that if the state's salmon fishermen complied with new harvest regimes in the treaty, they would not be subject to additional cutbacks under the Endangered Species Act. Stevens' rider would have declared the treaty regimes sufficient for complying with the act and would have prevented NMFS from imposing new harvest restrictions in the future, for example, to further reduce the loss of endangered Columbia Basin salmon.

Knowles said such a scenario was possible because the Northwest has not done enough to improve fish survival through dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

But Northwest governors and the White House said the treaty agreement did not include such a waiver and charged Alaskan was attempting to rewrite the terms of the agreement.

The final language hammered out by Stevens and administration officials sets up a process that NMFS must follow before considering further harvest reductions in the Alaska fishery. The agency would be required to:

Environmental groups said the language, which is couched in the form of a funding restriction on NMFS' activities, was a major improvement over the original amendment, although they still are opposed in general to Endangered Species Act riders on appropriations bills.

"The rider removed recovery options for the few remaining endangered and threatened salmon that migrate into Alaska from Washington and Oregon," Heather Weiner, senior legislative counsel with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said. "While the new language adds cost, bureaucracy and delay to possible future actions in the Alaska fisheries, it does not waive the basic tenets of the law."

Moreover, Weiner said the language conceivably could force the Northwest to consider stronger salmon recovery measures, such as dam removal. It "sends a clear message from Congress to salmon managers that further restrictions on the Alaska fishery may come only after other impacts on imperiled salmon have been considered," she said.

Stevens was withholding statements on the matter until Congress acted on the overall spending package, a spokeswoman said Thursday. White House officials did not return calls requesting comment.

An official with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said commercial fishermen in Alaska "always wanted assurances not a waiver." Glen Spain, Northwest regional director, said the final language seemed acceptable to him because it would not waive the ESA and instead, basically sets up a procedure for prioritizing the work of agencies.

"The provision simply sets up a procedure for doing a biological opinion and a programmatic incidental take permit, which is standard procedure for any operating fishery," Spain said.

Alaska Fishery Rider Revised
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 19, 1999

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