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Being Frank

Are rockfish stocks off the coast of Washington state in the same condition as rockfish populations hundreds of miles away in California? Probably not, but the way we manage them now, we’re assuming that the two diverse stocks are identical.

Rockfish are part of the bounty that the Pacific Ocean has always provided for the Indian tribes along the Washington coast. Fish, shellfish, marine mammals and other marine life have been staples of our diets and economies for as long as anyone can remember.

But now our fish populations are in trouble and being mismanaged. The reasons for the recent declines are either complex or unknown, most likely because we aren’t looking in the right place. So it’s urgent that we fund much-needed research about fish stocks off our coast.

The practice of assuming rockfish populations up and down the Pacific coast are the same, and managing them as a single stock, has failed.

Big time declines in the stocks are driving management decisions for all of the West Coast. A multi-million dollar groundfish fishery in Washington waters, where rockfish resources are stronger, is at risk of a complete closure because of weak stocks in northern California waters.

To avoid such an economic disaster, we must act now.

The Hoh Indian Tribe, the Makah Tribe, the Quileute Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation and the State of Washington have proposed a five-year ocean monitoring and research initiative to manage rockfish at the ecosystem level. Federal support is needed to collect basic information we need to manage the waters off the Olympic Coast.

For a small percentage of the value of the fishery to our communities a year, we can begin to collect the data needed to improve our understanding of a vital part of our heritage and an essential part of our future.

We need finer scale data, including additional survey data from areas we’re not sampling right now on the continental shelf and slope, and expanding existing groundfish port sampling.

We simply can’t figure out how healthy our local rockfish stocks are without this kind of information.

The initiative would also create a comprehensive assessment of the coastal ecosystem. If we don’t know what kind of habitat is out there and how it supports different species, we can’t effectively conserve rockfish and other groundfish species.

Understanding how climate change is impacting the ocean is also an important part of this proposal. Changes in ocean currents affect the health and abundance of ocean fisheries. The ocean initiative proposed by the tribes and the state will help track changes in ocean conditions off of our coast.

We all have to work together to gain a better understanding of the watery world that has given us so much. The tribes that have always depended on the ocean and our state co-managers have proposed a way to find out what is really going on out in the ocean.

It’s time we stepped up with them. The cost of maintaining our ignorance is too high.

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.

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