Certainty is key
This year's North of Falcon salmon management process, for the coast and Puget Sound, was tougher than it's ever been.
North of Falcon is the key part of annual planning that brings state and tribal co-managers together with input from stakeholders to set fishing regulations north of the Oregon Coast cape of the same name.
As in years past, it was a give-and-take process of shaping fisheries to fit under the ''impact lid'' that helps us protect weak wild salmon stocks while, to the extent possible, harvesting abundant hatchery salmon. We are especially concerned about protecting Puget Sound chinook listed as ''threatened'' under the Endangered Species Act.
But there was something new this year. The state co-managers wanted to add and expand marked selective sport fisheries throughout Puget Sound. The co-managers clip the small adipose fin from the backs of young salmon before they're released from hatcheries. A missing adipose fin tells you the fish is a hatchery product and the intent is to help us manage salmon, in fisheries and in spawning areas. The theory is that hatchery fish can be targeted in harvests because they're more plentiful, but unmarked fish must be released.
But, frankly, selective fisheries are still new in Puget Sound, so nobody has much information about their effects. About all we do know for sure is that it kills wild fish along with hatchery fish. The 2006 - '07 marked selective winter chinook fishery in Puget Sound killed five or six fish for every legal-sized chinook landed. Of that amount, about half were wild fish; the other half was hatchery fish too small to keep. The year before, the ratio of harvested to killed fish was about one to one.
In the North of Falcon process, we had to go through lots of debates, juggling fishing times and locations before we could make the marked selective sport fishery fit under the impact lid. But we hung in there until we did, because the highest responsibility of a co-manager is to rebuild the wild fish stocks we're sworn to protect. Strong monitoring and enforcement programs were put in place to gather important information that will hopefully help curtail the debate in future allocation processes.
Tribes are not opposed to marked selective fisheries. We think they do have the potential to be an effective tool. But if we are to have selected fisheries, they must be consistent with good science. We must have an appropriate accounting of the impacts hook and release fisheries have on wild stocks. That impact can be substantial. Even more importantly, if we're going to recover wild salmon, we've got to get to the root cause of their decline - lost and damaged habitat. Until we all work together to really do something about that, we won't succeed.
The co-managers are being squeezed in a management vice because so much of our natural habitat has been degraded by urban sprawl and pollution. Every year we have got to do everything we can to be precise in our decisions if wild fish are to be protected, especially Puget Sound chinook. Lack of data leads to uncertainty in fisheries management, and we just can't allow much uncertainty today.
So, for the sake of the salmon, and to help assure our children will have an opportunity to fish, I ask you to do your part to protect them. If you fish for sport, stick within the limits and report your full catch. No more high grading; and if your fish isn't clipped, keep it in or near the water as you carefully remove your hook. Most importantly, don't pollute. Conserve water and fuel. Use biodegradable products and support environmental regulations and policies as if your own future depended on it, because it does.
Co-management processes such as North of Falcon must put science first. If fisheries' management decisions can't be justified scientifically, neither the state nor tribes will allow them to be implemented. The risks are simply too great, the possible effects to wild salmon too disastrous, and the salmon too important.
Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.