by Lorraine Loomis
I am deeply disappointed that the tribal and state salmon co-managers were unable to reach agreement on a joint package of fishing seasons for Puget Sound this year.
It was the first time in more than 30 years that’s happened, and it’s a shame. The salmon and all of us are better served when we work together. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a solution that met one another’s needs.
The situation we find ourselves in this year is due in large part to decades of failure by local, state and federal governments to stem the tremendous ongoing loss of salmon habitat in western Washington. Tribes are not responsible for that loss but are equally affected.
There is a direct connection between salmon habitat and fishing opportunity. We can’t expect salmon to thrive while their habitat continues to be lost and damaged.
Both wild and hatchery salmon depend on the same habitat for most of their lifespan, but that habitat is being lost faster than it can be restored. The trend shows no signs of letting up. It puts our treaty rights at risk because salmon are disappearing right along with their habitat.
Tribal fisheries will be greatly reduced this year because poor returns of chinook and chum are expected. Coho returns are expected to be at historic low levels. Tribes will close all directed coho fisheries except in a few terminal areas with harvestable returns of fish.
In some cases tribes are giving up ceremonial and subsistence fisheries that are a cornerstone of our cultures. But this year is not about salmon harvest. It is about conserving the salmon for future generations.
Things are not getting better. Since 1999, Puget Sound chinook have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Puget Sound steelhead have been listed since 2007. Neither species is recovering. Puget Sound coho could easily be next on the list.
Salmon management has become increasingly difficult as salmon populations decline across western Washington. Tribal and state co-managers are struggling with how to manage the crumbs of a disappearing resource.
It’s clear that change must occur, and that change must start with habitat.
What’s needed is commitment from the state to a long-term strategy to increase production of both hatchery and wild salmon. Reversing the trend of habitat loss and damage must be at the center of that effort. In the meantime, we need hatcheries to make up for lost natural production for as long as habitat limits salmon recovery.
Tribes have documented extensive salmon habitat loss in western Washington in the soon-to-be-released 2016 State of Our Watersheds report. The 2012 report is available at http://nwifc.org/sow/.
The columns of Billy Frank Jr. written between 1984 and 2014 have been published in the book, “Tell the Truth: The Collected Columns of Billy Frank Jr.” Whatcom Watch began printing his columns in 2004.
Lorraine Loomis is the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. www.nwifc.org