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Washington Trout Challenges Current Salmon-Harvest Management

Current fishing management is illegally jeopardizing the recovery of Puget Sound chinook salmon, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. So says a complaint filed in Federal District Court today by a coalition of regional salmon-recovery advocates.
Oct 10, 2006



Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, Washington Trout, Native Fish Society, & Clark-Skamania Flyfishers

Tel 425/788-1167 x222 · Fax 425/788-9634 · [email protected]


Contact: Ramon Vanden Brulle, Washington Trout, 425/788-1167 [email protected]; Gary Loomis, Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, 360/901-0871; Svend A. Brandt-Erichsen, Heller Ehrman LLP, 206/389-6010; [email protected]; Bill Bakke, Native Fish Society, 503/977-0287, [email protected]

Conservationists File Suit Over Puget Sound Salmon Harvest

Current fishing management is illegally jeopardizing the recovery of Puget Sound chinook salmon, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. So says a complaint filed in Federal District Court today by a coalition of regional salmon-recovery advocates.

The Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, Washington Trout, the Native Fish Society, and the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers are suing the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the ESA-approval of the Puget Sound Comprehensive Chinook Management Plan: Harvest Management Component, a Resource Management Plan, or RMP, co-developed by Washington state and the Puget Sound tribes. The RMP was approved by NOAA Fisheries in 2004 and is intended to guide salmon harvest in Puget Sound until 2010.

The conservation groups say that the RMP does not meet the criteria NOAA Fisheries set in 2000 for approving salmon-harvest plans, and so the 2004 approval violated the ESA. Puget Sound chinook are also caught in fisheries in Canada, Alaska, and off the Washington coast. According to the complaint filed today, the total harvest of Puget Sound chinook, when the Puget Sound catch is combined with harvests from these other fisheries, is too high for the listed salmon to recover, and  NOAA Fisheries failed to consider or impose changes in fishing practices, locations, seasons, gear, or methods as reasonable and prudent alternatives.

The conservation groups also maintain that new information obligates NOAA Fisheries to re-open its evaluation of the Puget Sound fisheries. Data released in August 2006 demonstrates that impacts from Canadian fisheries on Puget Sound chinook are much higher than previously believed.  The ESA requires the federal agency to re-initiate its evaluation processes when new information shows that impacts on a listed animal are greater than expected.

“Harvest management’s primary goal should be to deliver enough spawners to the rivers,” said Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society. “Fishery managers can’t recover and maintain viable wild, native populations, or comply with the ESA, without meeting that fundamental responsibility.”

In 2002 NOAA Fisheries’ own Puget Sound Technical Recovery Team (TRT) issued criteria for determining the viability of individual populations of Puget Sound chinook. However, when it approved the RMP, NOAA did not base harvest-management thresholds on the TRT criteria, and in fact the abundance targets developed for the harvest plan are often less than one-tenth of the TRT goals. If NOAA had used the TRT targets, it would have had to approve much lower fishing rates than the current plan allows.

Even using the inappropriate abundance-targets, NOAA acknowledged that currently approved harvest rates are too high to allow recovery for important populations of PS chinook, including populations in the Cedar, Nooksack, Skagit, Skykomish, and some Hood Canal Rivers. NOAA’s approval of the RMP also acknowledged that many of the current harvest rates were based on “policy considerations” rather than biological factors.

“NOAA Fisheries acknowledges that these harvest rates are too high for the salmon to recover,” said Gary Loomis, President of the Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, “but it approved the harvest plan anyway. That’s a violation of their responsibility under the ESA.”

In 2005, NOAA endorsed the habitat component of the Puget Sound Chinook Recovery Plan, the so-called Shared Strategy Plan, developed by local, tribal, state, and federal agencies. While the Shared Strategy Plan uses the TRT criteria and targets, the harvest plan still retains the significantly lower abundance thresholds.

“Spawning goals and harvest rates should be consistent with scientifically established ESA recovery goals,” said Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of Washington Trout. “NOAA’s own science supports the higher abundance targets in Shared Strategy; it has to reconcile the habitat-recovery plans and harvest plans it approves.”

Managers claim that salmon harvest has been reduced from historic levels by 30% to 50%, depending on the run – but the starting point was very high, typically 60% to 90% of returning populations. The current harvest plan allows “incidental” impacts up to 76% on listed chinook populations when hatchery or other unlisted salmon are targeted, and would even allow some listed populations to be directly targeted for harvest.

The conservation groups say that impacts from Canadian and non-tribal US fisheries can be reduced while still honoring treaties with Native Americans, and that they respect and acknowledge Tribal rights to fish for salmon. They note that treaty obligations and other regulations offer strong protection for Tribal fishing rights.

“We don’t see any necessary conflict between treaty fishing rights and reducing the impact of harvest,” said Beardslee. “But NOAA does have the ability and responsibility to regulate non-tribal fisheries to avoid jeopardizing chinook recovery.”

The groups are asking the court to order NOAA to withdraw its approval of the RMP and develop more appropriate salmon-harvest regulations.


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