23 Jan 2008, 2:12pm
Dams Judicial incompetence Salmon science Tribes
by admin

Sportsfishing Interests Face Ten More Years in the Wilderness

News from the Front #92:

By James Buchal, author The Great Salmon Hoax [here]

The Feds have been centralizing all natural resource decisionmaking and putting it under wraps ever since Nixon sent Judge Boldt out here. So the action in salmon decisionmaking, at least for Columbia River harvest issues, is in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. Public observers learned at a December 12, 2007 status conference before Judge Redden that the Federal government and the Northwest States and Tribes had privately advised the Court of a new ten-year secret harvest deal back in September. The deal will become final when and if NOAA Fisheries issues a biological opinion approving the deal in the next couple of months.

Judge Redden is overseeing the new biological opinion on dam operations, not harvest, but at the December 12th status conference, the attorney representing the State of Washington explained that the two opinions were “intertwined”. More specifically, he told Judge Redden: “. . . we need to get that [dam biological opinion] done in order to prop up what needs to be done in United States v. Oregon in the associated harvest [biological opinion]”.

What did he mean by “prop up”? Most people think Judge Redden’s opinions are about offsetting harm from dam operations, but when NOAA Fisheries models only the effects of dam operations on salmon populations, it can’t find that they threaten to wipe out salmon. So NOAA Fisheries is going to hide future harvest rate increases in the biological opinion on dam operations, even though it knows this is not how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work. The Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries even admitted in testimony before the Northwest Power & Conservation Council in November that “if you scrupulously used the rules for writing a biological opinion [on dam operations], you wouldn’t include future biological opinions [on salmon harvest that are yet to be written]”.

For all practical purposes, the process of tweaking dam operations was finished years ago, and now the whole game is to raise electric rates to fund program spending for Northwest States and Tribes that can serve as alleged “mitigation” for overfishing listed stocks. NOAA Fisheries is supposed to assess whether harvest increases themselves jeopardize salmon in harvest biological opinions, but it hasn’t really done so for years. Back in 2001, an outside, blue-ribbon panel even told NOAA Fisheries that the harvest biological opinions it was issuing “demean scientific common sense”.

The problem for sportsmen is that they get nothing out of all this crookedness. The dam-funded habitat programs that NOAA Fisheries bribes the States and Tribes with don’t really do much for fish, and deflect attention from what is going on in United States v. Oregon. Details of the new deal have been leaking out piece by piece. First, the Nez Perce Tribe suddenly declared that they are entitled to half of the Snake River hatchery steelhead, a move that Idaho sportsfishing interests described as “devastating”. Next, details were released to the “Columbia River Salmon Fisheries Visioning Process” (which ostensibly includes numerous sportfishing representatives, but is heavily tilted to commercial harvest interests) and then published in the Vancouver Columbian. Non-Tribal interests are going to get fewer spring chinook unless runs exceed 271,000 fish. The fall chinook harvest deal appears to be a sliding scale rising from 20% Tribal and 1.5% non-Tribal shares of the smallest runs to 30% Tribal and 15% non-Tribal at run sizes likely never to be achieved.

Unless and until the sportsmen begin to challenge the Salmon Managers’ insistence on continued heavy, indiscriminate, mixed-stock, commercial harvests, they will continue to get the short end of the stick. The Regional Adminstrator told the Council in November that NOAA would “accommodate the deal” in its new biological opinion, rather than actually apply the Endangered Species Act to harvest. The resulting biological opinion will be the Federal decision that puts the nail in the coffin of the sportsmen for ten more years.

The single best strategic option for the sportsmen is to attack the new biological opinion. Back in 1996, a sportsman named Jim Ramsey won his lawsuit requiring an Environmental Impact Statement on Columbia River salmon and steelhead harvests. NOAA Fisheries was forced to admit that everyone on the Columbia River could catch more fish, by far, if selective harvest methods were adopted to reduce impacts on the weakest wild stocks. It has always been blindingly obvious that once you demand that each and every run of salmon be maintained, you have to adopt selective harvest or hack back mixed-stock harvest—at least if you are really serious about trying to protect the wild stocks. NOAA Fisheries has the raw power to force moves toward selective harvest, but no political will to do so.

Certainly States and Tribes, controlled by netting interests, are never going to move toward selective harvest. It will take a popular uprising to do that. Only members of the public, and not their so-called leaders, are going to ask why a member of a Native American Tribe should have ten, a hundred or even a thousand times the chance of a non-Tribal Northwest resident to catch and keep salmon and steelhead. What happened to equal rights under law? That’s all the Treaties ever promised the Native Americans anyway: the right to fish “in common” with the white settlers. Anyone who thinks that the Tribes still need to take that many extra fish to maintain their “standard of living”—the rationale of the Boldt decision—has never seen the kind of money the Tribes are making from their casinos. If the Tribes need special rights, they can fish selectively with dipnets at the dams and help preserve the wild stocks.

Upsetting the biological opinion on harvest would take the Region into uncharted waters, but the alternative for sportsmen is sitting at the end of the line for another ten years. The Columbia is a rich river. The Tribes are ready, willing and able to run hatcheries that can give sportsmen ten times the fishing opportunities they enjoy today if we scale back destructive mixed-stock harvests in the ocean and in the river. With pressure from sportsmen and the Tribes, the Feds can decentralize marine mammal management, and there will be even more fish. Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars a year now spent on salmon management go right down a rathole, filling shelves with paper and processes, rather than putting fish in the river. It is long past time to insist that the government put its people out in the field doing something useful, or stop taxing us for them.

The time for sportfishing interests to get involved is now. While I have a good deal of respect for the efforts of the Coastal Conservation Association, if sportsmen don’t wake up and start flooding NOAA Fisheries with objections to the new ten-year deal before the biological opinion rubber-stamping it becomes final, they will be on the short end of the stick for another ten years, at least as far as federal decisionmaking is concerned. So far, though, the sportmen are fielding their armies of representatives in the wrong processes, fighting with the non-Tribal commercials over tiny adjustments that are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

© James Buchal, January 23, 2008

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what’s going on, the quicker we’ll have more fish in the rivers.

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