Endangered Salmon Numbers
by Rukmini Callimachi, Associated Press
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Trying to apply what they called a "common sense solution" to saving salmon, three members of Congress suggested Tuesday cutting back on the numbers of fish that can be killed by fishermen.
"I have trouble, my little brain can't understand, how it's OK to slaughter the fish?" said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, who was joined by Reps. Brian Baird and Norm Dicks, both Democrats from Washington, for the first of three informal hearings to hear from various interest groups. Their approach provoked criticism from environmental groups, who say dams are responsible for killing many more salmon than fishing.
It also raised fears among American Indian tribes, whose treaty rights have guaranteed that they can fish both wild and hatchery-raised salmon. The two types of fish can be distinguished because most hatchery-raised salmon have had their fin clipped -- a move that was implemented two years ago through legislation sponsored by Dicks.
"Catch-and-release is not part of our culture," said Ron Suppah, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. "The old way is that the Creator placed us here and the Creator also placed our food here. What we promised the Creator is that we would take care of our brethren fish."
All three congressmen stressed that dams, as well as the habitat of the fish and hatchery practices, cannot be ignored, but the government has spent billions of dollars making dams safer for fish and improving their habitat -- and still salmon are declining.
"We are increasingly hearing from those who are paying the bills for these efforts and experiencing the impacts of additional regulations on their lives that they don't understand how we can ask them to support such costs and at the same time continue to harvest the wild salmon we're trying to protect," said Dicks.
The lawmakers grilled several officials with government agencies in charge of regulating salmon about the Endangered Species Act, asking them how it is that salmon can be listed as protected under the act, yet still be fished.
"Here's my problem with the Endangered Species Act: We don't take any eagles. We don't take any wolves," said Dicks. But when it comes to salmon, he said, fishermen are still allowed to take the endangered fish.
"That just doesn't make any sense to me," he said.
Sport and commercial harvests are regulated by state and federal agencies, and none allow fishermen to keep wild fish that are listed as threatened or endangered. However, fishing is allowed on rivers and in the ocean where protected fish are caught inadvertently, and some of them die after they are released.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration put 131 strains of hatchery salmon under Endangered Species Act protection along with their wild cousins, but allowed those raised artificially to still be harvested by fishermen.
The meetings came on the heels of an opinion by U.S. District Judge James Redden, who blasted the Bush administration for its proposed plan to make hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin safe for salmon. He has ordered NOAA Fisheries to come up with a new plan in a year.
Salmon have been declining for more than a century due to over-harvest, dam mortality, habitat destruction, and misguided hatchery practices that diluted the gene pool and flooded rivers with fish ill-suited to survive in the wild. There are currently 26 species of salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and California listed as threatened or endangered.
The idea of regulating fish harvest was welcomed by several groups -- especially commercial and sports fishermen, many of whom say they have already been using the catch-and-release technique.
"Our jobs are going down the toilet and our fish are going down the drain. The No. 1 thing we can do is have our fishermen take only the marked fish," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
"Mass marking is a tool for us to fish. If we don't know what we're seeing, how do we know what we're saving?"
It was also applauded by government agencies and by groups representing Northwest utilities.
"Northwest families and businesses are funding the world's most expensive salmon recovery effort," said Terry Flores, director of a group representing farmers, irrigators and electric utilities and the former director of hydroelectric licensing for PacifiCorp.
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