Suit Filed Over Chinook Catchby Robert McClure, Staff Reporter
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 11, 2006
Feds violating species act, plaintiffs say
Federal fisheries managers are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing fishermen to catch Puget Sound chinook salmon supposedly protected under the law, fishing and conservation groups claimed in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Depending on the run, up to 76 percent of the wild fish are caught, either in Puget Sound or in the Pacific, before they can return to spawn. And new information indicates they're getting hit much harder in Canada than previously thought, the plaintiffs said.
Their prescription for reform: more fisheries in which hatchery-bred fish and plentiful wild salmon runs are caught, but protected wild salmon are preserved.
That position that sets up a confrontation with Indian tribes that tend to fish with nets. The nets often can't discriminate between the wild fish that are the focus of Endangered Species Act protections, and hatchery-bred fish intended for consumption.
"For some of these key populations, the harvest rates are too high to allow them to effectively recover," said Ramon Vanden Brulle, spokesman for Washington Trout, an environmental group based in Duvall and one of the plaintiffs. "This is just lax enforcement."
But the federal, state and tribal regulators who have agreed on a multipronged rescue plan for the embattled chinook said the suit filed in federal court in Seattle risks upsetting a delicate balance they have worked out.
Their plan, they say, allows some careful fishing to continue while steps are taken to improve salmon habitat and limit harm to wild stocks from dams and the genetic effects of hatchery-bred fish.
"In a region that's full of bitter conflicts, Puget Sound stands out as a place where collaboration has really succeeded," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the first-named defendant in the suit.
"We will attempt to work with (the plaintiffs) to encourage them to work with others in a way that still recognizes (Indians') treaty harvest (rights) and where possible provides some opportunity for sport fishing as well," he said. "We believe the plan we've got is consistent with that."
Puget Sound chinook generally swim to the Pacific and turn right, heading up toward Alaska, then returnto spawn. New information that came to light in August indicates that the amount of Puget Sound chinook being caught along the Canadian coast is much higher than previously thought, all sides agree.
However, Lohn said there was a bit of good news at the same time: The new results mean that not as many salmon from the Columbia River are being caught in Canada as previously thought. His agency has to protect both Puget Sound chinook and a variety of imperiled Columbia stocks.
And negotiations are just getting under way with Canada on a new Pacific Salmon Treaty, to go into effect in 2008, that could further limit catches of Puget Sound chinook. Heading to Canada next week for those talks will be Jeff Koenings, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As for the plaintiffs' request that the fisheries service reopen its look at whether the recovery plan meets requirements of the Endangered Species Act, Koenings said: "Quite simply, we don't need for another divisive process to get between us and the product. ... It's a plan that gets us started down the road of reforming our harvest practices."
Billy Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, noted that tribes have been advocates for restoring salmon runs even as they have fought for their rights under treaties to harvest half the salmon.
In Frank's stomping grounds around the Nisqually River all sides have signed off on a salmon-rescue plan that already has seen some 800 acres of marsh restored to help salmon.
"We've worked together with the state, the feds, the environmentalists and everybody else to protect the salmon," Frank said. "You can't just file a lawsuit and expect things to happen overnight."
Lohn said the Nisqually is a good example of how the government's position differs from the plaintiffs'.
There, the spawning grounds are fully seeded by the wild fish that do return, he said. If more wild fish came back, there would not be room for all of them to spawn, he said.
"They have no data to support the assertion of what the habitat capacity is," Vanden Brulle argued. "That's unsubstantiated by any credible evidence."
The plaintiffs in the suit are Washington Trout, the Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, the Native Fish Society and Clark-Skamania Flyfishers.
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