Opinion

Ninety percent

That's the level of salmon harvest reductions the treaty Indian tribes and non-Indian sport and commercial fishermen have experienced since the mid 1980s. Tribal harvests have dropped from a total of about 5-million salmon in 1986 to about 500,000 in 1999.

Despite these huge reductions in harvest, wild salmon populations continue to decline. Why? Because the primary cause for the decline of wild salmon is rooted in one area: habitat.

Still, some say the answer to salmon recovery is simple: Just stop fishing and weak wild salmon runs will rebuild. Clearly, that isn't the case. Harvest simply can't be reduced or eliminated fast enough to make up for lost wild salmon production caused by loss and degradation of spawning and rearing habitat.

It's unrealistic to expect that wild salmon habitat in the region can be restored to its historic high quality and quantity, but all of the low hanging fruit has already been picked in the effort to restore wild salmon. We, all of us, are left only with the difficult decisions about wild salmon, their habitat needs, and how we can balance our needs for growth. It's not about choosing one or the other. We can have both. But to have both, we must make better decisions.

Those who think it is a matter of choosing between salmon and people are missing an important point. Salmon are an indicator species for all life in the Pacific Northwest, including human life. To have healthy communities in the years to come, we must have healthy runs of salmon. As a species that swims through both fresh and salt water throughout the region, the salmon is a living gauge of environmental health, as well as a vital component of our cultural and economic strength and overall quality of life.

In addition to harvest and habitat, we must look at other factors affecting the health of wild salmon populations. Take salmon hatcheries, for example.

Once viewed by many simply as factories for producing salmon, now we are reforming hatchery practices to help recover and conserve wild salmon populations while providing sustainable fisheries for Indian and nonIndian fishermen.

While the tribes have made efforts over the past decade to reduce impacts of hatcheries on wild salmon stocks - such as carefully timing releases of young hatchery salmon into rivers to avoid competition for food and habitat with young wild salmon - a lack of funding has prevented the tribes from applying a comprehensive, systematic approach to hatchery reform.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Washington's congressional delegation the treaty tribes, Washington Department of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service will share $3.6 million this year to conduct much-needed research, monitoring and evaluation of hatchery practices at the approximately 150 tribal, state and federal hatchery facilities in western Washington. Continued funding for this effort will be critical to its overall success.

Federal legislation has created an independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group to provide scientific oversight for tribal, state and federal hatchery practices reform and to provide recommendations for implementation of scientific goals and strategies. A top priority of the tribal and state co-managers under the hatchery reform initiative will be to complete hatchery genetic management plans for each species at each hatchery on Puget Sound. The plans, due in late June, will provide a picture of how stocks and hatcheries should be managed, and will serve as a tool for implementing hatchery reform. The plans are especially important in light of efforts to respond to Endangered Species Act listings of Puget Sound chinook and other salmon species in Western Washington. In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to rely on these plans for its decisions on whether hatchery practices could constitute a "take" of salmonids listed under the ESA.

Already, some salmon enhancement facilities have been switched from producing hatchery fish to restoring wild fish through broodstocking and supplementation. Through these programs, wild salmon are captured and spawned at a hatchery. Their offspring are then reared in the facility and later released in various locations within the watershed to increase their chances for survival. Such efforts help preserve and rebuild wild salmon runs that might otherwise disappear.

The tribal and state co-managers are also responding to declining wild salmon populations through improved planning processes like Comprehensive Coho and Comprehensive Puget Sound Chinook, which seek to protect and restore adequate freshwater habitat and to ensure that enough adult salmon reach the spawning grounds to recover the stocks. The goal is to restore the productivity and diversity of wild salmon stocks from Puget Sound and the Washington coast to levels that can support treaty and non-treaty fisheries. As part of the effort, recovery goals and comprehensive recovery plans are being developed for all salmon species in western Washington. Specific recovery plans are being developed for each watershed to guide how harvest, habitat and hatcheries will be managed.

Treaty Indian tribes in western Washington already have made significant harvest reductions to protect weak wild stocks. This has come at a great cost to our spiritual, cultural and economic well-being.

This year the tribes will conduct conservative fisheries that are even more restrictive than last year to protect weak wild salmon stocks, especially coho. While recognizing there are some strong hatchery chinook returns expected, tribal fisheries will be designed to contribute to the rebuilding of wild Puget Sound chinook, which have been listed as threatened under the ESA.

Tribal fishermen are literally at the end of the line when it comes most salmon fisheries. Under treaties with the United States government, tribes are required to take their share of the salmon in traditional harvest areas, mainly in bays and at river mouths. These are called terminal areas, and they allow for highly selective fisheries by tribes. By the time returning adult salmon reach these areas, strong and weak stocks are no longer mixed. This allows tribal fishermen to target only healthy runs that can support harvest.

Fisheries are carefully planned and monitored to ensure that biologically sound harvest levels are not exceeded. Tribal net fisheries are strictly regulated, from the net's length and size of mesh, to the amount of time a fishery is opened. These time, place and manner restrictions are used by managers to concentrate harvest effort on strong stocks that can support harvest.

Habitat protection and restoration projects, hatchery reform and improved salmon management planning, are just some of the ways that the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington are working to protect, enhance and restore wild salmon populations.

Wild salmon recovery in western Washington is a biologically simple, but politically difficult task. All the fish need is clean, cool water, adequate spawning and rearing habitat, and adequate numbers of returning adult salmon to spawn, and they will take care of the rest.

Today, salmon recovery in Western Washington is being played out against the backdrop of the ESA, the filter through which all salmon recovery plans must pass. The ESA isn't the starting point for salmon restoration - the treaty tribes and state have been working on restoration efforts for decades. Nor is the ESA the end point. Tribal salmon restoration efforts won't conclude until there are healthy wild salmon populations that can support harvest by both Indian and non-Indian fishermen. Any other measure of success should be unacceptable to everyone.

Wild salmon populations did not decline overnight, and it will take decades for us to restore their numbers. We are confident, however, that by working together - all of us - through a shared strategy for salmon recovery, we can achieve the goal of returning wild salmon stocks to abundance.

Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian fish

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