Harvest Reform Campaign
Worldwide over-harvest has played a major role in the decline of wild fish. From the collapse of the Atlantic cod to the crash of the bluefin tuna, governing agencies acknowledge that over-harvest was the cause -- after the fact. Up to the point of no return, they and the harvesters laid the blame elsewhere. Here in the Pacific Northwest, government and harvesters are singing the same song of denial while salmon and steelhead continue to decline.
Our legal victory in the Bonneville Dam sea lions case highlights the ironies of state and federal salmon management practices. Each year, managers permit the harvest of up to 40% of federally protected wild Columbia River salmon, yet insist that it's essential to salmon recovery to kill federally protected sea lions that consume a mere 1/2 to 4 percent of these same salmon. Modest reductions in harvest levels and employment of selective fishing methods can easily accomplish far greater savings and do so in a much more ecologically sensible way.
In the wild, federally protected salmon, steelhead and bull trout commonly prey on each other as they mature; federally protected killer whales eat federally protected salmon in the ocean and bears eat them on their spawning grounds. Choosing to kill one federally-protected species to protect another undermines the very Act that protects them all. The real problem is harvest management that allows over-harvest of wild salmon that results in the under-seeding of our rivers, and in the end, cripples our efforts to restore salmon.
Most people in the Pacific Northwest believe that we as a society need to recover wild salmon, and probably most of those people would agree that “recovery” includes commercial salmon fisheries. The fishing boat laden with a catch of large salmon is almost as iconic as the fish itself. The listing of wild salmon populations under the ESA has not stopped fishing for salmon, most of which is directed at hatchery-produced fish. While commercial catches have been depressed in recent years due to depressed wild salmon numbers, commercial fishing is still an important economic driver on a local and regional scale. But if our goal in salmon recovery is enough wild fish to sustain themselves and fishery economies, then recent wild salmon population status and trends indicate we are far from that goal.
The ESA listings spawned a myriad of laws, programs, initiatives, and research efforts aimed at recovering wild salmonids. While the initial ESA-listing of Puget Sound Chinook salmon identified over-harvest, hatchery management, and habitat loss and degradation as the three major causes of decline, most of the subsequent effort has focused on habitat. Thousands of volunteer hours and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on habitat improvement projects, and new regulations have been implemented to protect habitat. But problems with harvest and hatchery management are far from being resolved, and they have received less attention and funding and less public involvement than habitat protection and restoration.
Hatchery-origin salmon are produced and harvested to support treaty obligations and commercial and recreational fisheries at the same time we try to rebuild our declining wild populations. Ironically, harvest directed primarily at these very same hatchery salmon pose significant direct and indirect threats to wild salmon that are the objects of recovery efforts. Harvest reform is needed in order to address these threats and to secure the conditions for sustainable fishery economies.
The central issue regarding salmon harvest is two-pronged: 1) maximizing the harvest of non-protected hatchery fish to sustain fishery economies and keep less-fit hatchery fish from spawning in the wild (thereby maintaining the fitness of the wild, naturally-spawned, populations); and 2) protecting wild salmon during harvest, so that they can escape the fisheries and continue their migration to the spawning grounds that they must reach if they are to sustain and rebuild their numbers. These two interrelated objectives are not being achieved for many of the ESA-listed salmon populations. As habitat restoration and protection efforts are implemented, our watersheds need more wild fish to “seed” these restored habitats.
Salmon harvest practices have not been critically examined to ensure that harm to wild salmon and other non-targeted species is minimized and that robust numbers of wild fish are consistently permitted to reach their spawning grounds. Despite the protections that the ESA and implementing regulations are supposed to provide, the State’s recently-approved Harvest Plan allows native Puget Sound Chinook salmon to be harvested at rates ranging from 20 to 75 percent of the returning spawners. And coast-wide, numerous other ESA-listed salmon populations are subject to analogous unsustainable harvest impacts.
Phase One - A Critical Examination of Harvest
This is a challenging issue, one that many are afraid to touch, let alone champion. There's no quick fix. Redressing the imbalance in salmon recovery between habitat recovery and harvest reform requires a multi-pronged approach that:
- identifies the basic data regarding harvest and makes them more available to the public;
- promotes secure, sustainable local fishery economies using innovative approaches that include the widespread adoption of safe, selective salmon harvest techniques;
- evaluates the scientific credibility of current management approaches and provides new and more effective tools;
- engages and educates the public on the importance and implications of the issue.
While each component has independent utility, we believe that a comprehensive strategy includes all of them.
Wild Fish Conservancy is committed to this important cause. We must not allow history to repeat itself; salmon and steelhead are treasures we cannot afford to lose. We've already begun the work.