News from the Front #16:

Feds Dictate Huge Increase in Spring Tribal Harvest, Scraps for Sportsmen

"Equal Rights for Red and White", I-5 Billboard near Chehalis (February 2000)

On February 29, 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued its Biological Opinion (390 kb MS Word document) on "Impacts of Treaty Indian and Non-Indian Year 2000 Winter, Spring and Summer Season Fisheries in the Columbia River Basin on Salmon and Steelhead Listed Under the Endangered Species Act".  The 82-page document sanctions a sharp increase in Tribal harvest of purportedly-endangered fish, and allocates nearly the entire harvest to the Tribes. 

The Endangered Species Act flatly declares that it is unlawful to "deliver, receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce, by any means whatsoever, and in the course of a commercial activity, any [endangered] species".  The entire upriver run of fish is now estimated to be 134,000 fish, of which more than half are naturally-produced fish ostensibly protected by the Endangered Species Act. 

NMFS' refusal to enforce the plain language of the Act, which makes no exceptions, even for Tribal harvest, makes a mockery of the Endangered Species Act.  It remains a mystery to me why no one in the entire Columbia River Basin has the will to bring a lawsuit challenging these harvests.   It is true that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit let NMFS get away with this once before, when the listed fish were a much smaller percentage of the harvest, but the facts have changed and there are other courts available.

Over the last three seasons, the Tribes have caught roughly 3,200 upriver spring chinook a year.  In a new biological opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposes to allow the harvest this spring to rise to 12,000 fish, roughly 9% of the total run.  And the reported harvest is almost certainly understated, probably by more than a factor of two.   The evidence on unreported ocean harvest is slim, because almost no data is collected.  In the river, however, researchers have amassed quite a bit of data on just what happens to migrating adults by radiotagging them and putting receivers up and down the Columbia River.

In the hothouse world of politically-correct salmon science, gathering data on adult salmon migration is inherently subversive.  For example, for several years, researchers have found that adult salmon tend to migrate upstream faster through dams and reservoirs than through a natural river.  (The "conservation scientists" ignore this work entirely, and postulate preposterous 50% gains in adult survival from removing the four lower Snake River dams.) 

And for several years, researchers have found that large number of transmitters disappear where harvest is underway.  The most recent work tracked 853 spring and summer chinook salmon as they migrated upstream during 1996.  In the Bonneville to McNary reach, 41 fish were reported caught in sport fisheries, 39 in tribal fisheries, and 115 fish were unaccounted for (13.5% of the total).  In the mid-Columbia reach, where there is no significant tribal fishery, only 0.5% of the adults were unaccounted for.  Remarkably, one can read NMFS' entire 82-page Biological Opinion and not find a single reference to illegal or unreported harvest, or a single reference to the radio-tagging studies.  As usual, NMFS chooses to "see no evil" with respect to a very significant piece of the salmon recovery problem, even as it falsely proclaims that it is pursuing an "all-H" salmon recovery plan. 

The final insult to good policy is that NMFS is decreeing an allocation that appears to put roughly 90% of the fish in the hands of the Tribes, including at least one Tribe that long ago relinquished its Treaty fishing rights (the Warm Springs Tribe).   For many in-river fisheries, the Tribes have a good argument that the whites get first crack at the fish in the ocean, so they should get most of the fish in the river.  But NMFS takes the position that there is no ocean harvest to speak of on these fish, and the Tribes appear to agree. 

The Tribes generally have Treaty rights to fish "in common" with the whites.  The Supreme Court has stretched that Treaty language to suggest a 50/50 allocation of the harvestable surplus.  White citizens of Oregon, Washington and Idaho ought to ask just what they pay their Attorney Generals to do, if not to protect at least their 50% of the fish in the federally-controlled allocation process.  And the white people who still fish for salmon with rod and reel ought to ask why they have let a bunch of rabid   environmentalists take over all the sportfishing organizations and stand silent in the face of this insult to the interests of those they are supposed to represent. 

James Buchal, March 3, 2000


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