Moving Toward River-Based Harvest Management and Sustainable Salmon Harvest

“The farther that harvest occurs from the spawning grounds, the less likely accurate stock identification becomes, and the lower the likelihood that effective harvest management can be achieved.” ISG, Return to the River (1996).4

There is one obvious way to get more salmon in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest: ban all salmon fishing on the ocean, so that the entire population returns to the rivers. By catching salmon in rivers, harvest levels can be crafted to protect each and every river in the Pacific Northwest.

Every scientific panel to examine salmon production in the Pacific Northwest has recognized that reduced ocean fishing effort is “necessary for increasing production”.5 The Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Group concluded in 1996 that “[a]ll Columbia River stocks, with the possible exception of Hanford fall chinook, are at such low levels that harvest in the ocean will have to be very low or non-existent to allow the habitat restoration proposed herein to have a reasonable chance to succeed”.6

Perhaps the greatest single success story in fishery management has been the Bristol Bay, Alaska sockeye fishery. Beginning in the late 1800s up until the 1950s, unrestricted fishing on the river led to catches upwards of 20 million fish annually. Then in 1954, harvesters were limited to “‘terminal areas’ in the marine waters near the mouth of the rivers where returning spawners were thought to have separated”.7 Nevertheless, catches continued to decline as low as 2.3 million fish, largely due to indiscriminate mixed-stock high seas fishing by Japanese vessels (climate changes may also have been a factor). After the Japanese government agreed to close the high seas fishery, sockeye harvests rose steadily, and recently peaked at over 40 million sockeye in 1995. “Bristol Bay is the largest of a substantial number of salmon fisheries which are successfully managed using stock identification information”.8

Banning ocean harvest would resolve longstanding quarrels between the United States and Canada over the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty, which was supposed to assure equal benefits to each nation from Pacific salmon harvests. Right now, the Canadians on the losing end of the Treaty. In 1994, Americans caught almost 9 million Canadian salmon, while Canadians took about 3.5 milllion American fish.9 Many of the fish caught by Canadians come from the Columbia River system. If ocean harvest were banned, each nation would catch “its own” salmon. Indeed, for the first time, each major river system would receive the economic returns from good watershed management. It is only by re-establishing such common-sense incentives for salmon protection that any long-term progress can be made.

Alaska stands as the principal obstacle to ocean harvest reform. Studies suggest that at least 60% of the salmon caught off the coast of Alaska spawn in Canadian rivers, while only 10% of the salmon caught off the coast of Alaska spawn in Alaskan waters.10 Backed by powerful politicians, including Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, Alaska has long adopted a “blame the dams” approach to dealing with the salmon problem, even filing a lawsuit in Alaska against dam operations. Environmentalists and fishermen hope to extract more funding for dam-based recovery programs using Alaskan political power, but the quid pro quo is that the Alaskans will be permitted even greater harvests.11

Nearly all the tribes would support a ban on ocean harvest, because they have watched for decades as the ocean harvesters have gotten to their fish first. However, the Quinault Indian Nation, the Makah, Hoh and Quileute Indian Tribes have treaty rights to harvest salmon in the ocean off the Washington Coast.12 Some sort of special arrangements might be made to permit them to continue, or to substitute river harvest, so that their harvests do not threaten the larger conservation objectives.

Enormous numbers of salmon may still be caught as bycatch in other fisheries. Those salmon that are caught as bycatch should not be dumped into the sea, but kept with a corresponding reduction being made in in-river harvest.

Once harvest is returned to the rivers, improvement in fishing methods will still be required if we choose to protect more than one stock in a river. Gradually, more and more observers are coming to perceive the common-sense truth that stock-specific harvest is the only way to protect specific stocks. One possibility, not yet seriously considered by any government agency is: "We'll go back to where we started, to a logical and efficient fish-catching machine that lends itself to rational management, burns no gas and doesn't catch anybody else's fish. . . . [We'll] bring back the traps."13 Back when traps were legal, trapmen used to argue that their method of harvest had the least impact on salmon. They didn’t throw excess (dead) catch overboard; they could simply close the intakes to the traps when limits were reached. And their product was fresher.14 Fishwheels have had a long history of success on the Columbia River as well. At their peak in 1899, some 76 wheels were in operation, and caught mostly sockeye salmon.15

BPA is also funding a program to develop up to 20 hatchery, rearing, imprinting and return programs on the lower Columbia River.16 These would promote terminal harvest, whereby the salmon are turned loose to rear in the ocean, and then harvested upon return, with little impact on wild stocks beyond the competition for food in the ocean. Provided somebody is paying attention to problems of carrying capacity, these programs make sense—if they can compete economically with fish farms where the salmon simply stay in pens for their entire lives.

Proposals are often made to buy out particularly destructive harvesters, or to lease their licenses when necessary to curtail harvests. BPA has always been willing to try this, but attempts since 1993 have foundered for two reasons. First, the gillnetters targeted for the buyouts greedily insisted on recovering their gross income, not their net income. Second, the tribes who stood next in line to catch whatever salmon were freed up refused to allow them safe passage to the spawning grounds, asserting a Treaty right to catch additional fish.17 So long as in-river management is conducted by consensus under Court supervision, this seems unlikely to change.

As discussed in Chapter 2, the most promising means of improving harvest management is mass marking of fish and selective (live) harvest. That is the only way that salmon fishing can take place in the ocean or mainstem Columbia River without disproportionate impact on weaker stocks. Unfortunately, the four main Columbia River tribes are opposed to such reforms, believing that they would only “address a symptom—depressed fish runs—rather than rectifying the underlying problem—declining production and survival of wild and naturally spawning fish”.18 Wendell Hannigan of the Yakama Tribe even goes so far as to promote the specious argument that “[s]elective fisheries may actually increase the impact of fisheries on naturally-spawning stocks”.19

Beyond selective harvest, it may also be necessary to control marine mammal populations, unless we wish to hold success hostage until natural predators, including great white sharks and killer whales, become more abundant. The large and healthy populations of marine mammals at numerous rivers up and down the West Coast call for more immediate, practical action.

What is sauce for the salmon should be sauce for the marine mammals as well. There is no reason to treat salmon as a resource to be exploited, while protecting their predators, marine mammals, from any exploitation whatsoever. Controlled hunting for marine mammals would keep populations in check, and reduce widespread and well-deserved derision of fish and wildlife management policy in coastal towns that see large herds of sea lions destroying their livelihoods.

The final problem that remains is setting harvest levels. We need a body like the Columbia River Compact and the gathering of parties in United States v. Oregon, but in the form of a single regulatory agency with final authority on the subject. But this time, somebody has got to tell them how to do it. It’s time Congress grew up and started giving federal agencies some guidance, rather than just listing a bunch of factors for the agency to consider. That’s what Congressional hearings used to be for: to figure out the rules that ought to govern the citizenry. Now the hearings are no more than media food, and most of the policy that matters is set in the backrooms of the agencies.

In the long run, the best hope for wild salmon is that commercial fisheries may gradually become an anachronism. Like land-based hunting and gathering, commercial fisheries will be outmarketed by agriculture, or, in this case, aquaculture. As anthropologist Dr. Courtland Smith warned, foreseeing this trend back in 1979, “[t]his pattern of evolution will not help the gillnetter, trapman, seiner, fishwheeler, dipnetter, troller or any of the other fishers. They will continue to attempt to stem the flow of events . . .”20 And their agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, will continue to misuse salmon recovery planning to keep commercial salmon harvest alive.

4 ISG, Return to the River 369.

5 See, e.g., NRC, Upstream at 11; ISG, Return to the River 366.

6 ISG, Return to the River 375.

7 This quote and the material in this paragraph is drawn from ISG, Return to the River 374.

8 Id.

9 P. Koberstein, “Shipwreck! Is the Pacific Salmon Treaty Lost at Sea?”, Big River News (Fall 1996).

10 P. Koberstein, “Shipwreck! Is the Pacific Salmon Treaty Lost at Sea?”, Big River News (Fall 1996).

11 See P. Koberstein, “Shipwreck! Is the Pacific Salmon Treaty Lost at Sea?”, Big River News (Fall 1996)

12 United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312, 364, 372-74 (W.D. Wash. 1974), aff’d, 520 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1976), aff’d, 443 U.S. 658 (1979).

13 R. Anderson, "Settle the salmon wars or go back to square one", The Seattle Times, Sept. 29, 1996.

14 C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 30-31.

15 Id. at 35.

16 BPA, Lower Columbia River Salmon Business Plan for Terminal Hatcheries

17 J. Cone, A Common Fate 279.

18 R. Taylor, “Mass Marking: Sportfisher’s Dream, Commercial Fisher’s Salvation, or Natural Resource Nightmare?”, in Wana Chinook Tymoo Issue One, at 12 (CRITFC 1997)

19 Quoted in id. at 13.

20 Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 107.

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