Sunday, April 3, 2016


I’ve always lived in the Northeast, a neighbor to cod and controversy. Inshore, I fish for—and fight for—summer flounder and stripers; offshore, I tag sharks, worry about bluefin and do my best to put mahi and yellowfin into the box.  Once in a while, I’ll fish farther from home, for anything from red drum to red snapper.

But even when I'm away, the sun usually climbs up out of the water, and sets somewhere over dry land.  

Although I’ve fished Magellan’s “peaceful sea” more than a few times, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole lot of fish, with their own special problems, in that part of country where the sun sinks into the sea.

One of the biggest problems facing Pacific-coast fishery managers today is the damage done to both natural and hatchery-generated salmon runs by the so-called “blob,” a huge patch of warmer-than-normal water in the northern Pacific that has persisted for well over two years.

Scientists believe that the warm water made the northern Pacific less productive than it would normally be, and made it more difficult for maturing salmon to find sufficient forage.  As a result, returning year classes of salmon are much smaller than average.  Even hatchery fish are affected since, once released from the rearing pools, they too must forage for a few years in the open sea before returning to nearshore fishing areas and then ascending the spawning rivers.

Coho salmon have been hit particularly hard.  According to an article in the Kitsap (WA) Sun,

“Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of various fishing scenarios.  After they plugged in last year’s fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaquamish River in northern Puget Sound.  Things were hardly better for the Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.”
Coho forecasts for the Columbia River are also poor.  Jim Unsworth, Director of Fish and Wildlife for Washington State, noted that

“We know that severely limiting opportunities will hurt many families and communities that depend on these fisheries.  But conserving wild salmon is our top priority and is in the best interests of future generations of Washingtonians.”
That’s the right way to look at a difficult situation, but it’s not clear that all of the present generation of Washingtonians agree, particularly if they’re engaged in the recreational salmon-fishing industry.  The owner of one Puget Sound charter boat business spoke for a lot of those people when he said

“Salmon is what keeps us going.  It’s our bread and butter.  Fishing can be like a roller coaster.  Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not…The loss of coho fishing on the heels of losing central Puget Sound Chinook [salmon] fishing last year would be absolutely devastating for me, my business.  I have a family.  I have children.  Our sole livelihood depends on depends on these fisheries.”
Noting that

“Even catch and release fishing would be better than no fishing,”
he suggested that regulators should open a fishery that required native coho to be released, but allowed the retention of at least some hatchery-raised fish, which can be identified by their clipped adipose fin.

However, there are other residents of Washington State who want to take a far more precautionary approach to coho salmon management.  They are the members of the various native tribes, who relied on Pacific salmon for their very survival since the retreat of the last glaciers, even before the tribes and cultures ever adopted their current forms, more than 10,000 years ago—and perhaps for quite a bit longer, if some theories about early American migrations turn out to be true.

“Coho returns in 2015 were as much as 80 percent below pre-season forecasts.  The Nisqually Tribe cancelled its coho fishery when fewer than 4,000 of the 23,000 expected actually returned.  The same story was repeated in many Tribal fishing areas.
“That’s why western Washington treaty Tribes are calling for greater caution in fisheries management planning this year…
“Coho salmon that managed to make it back last year showed frightening effects of poor ocean conditions.  Most were 20 to 30 percent smaller than normal.  Females returned with about 40 percent fewer eggs.  This will likely result in lower natural and factory production and fewer fish in the future.”
Here on the East Coast, we often hear fishermen and fishing-related businesses cite “social” and “cultural” considerations as part of the reason for their opposition to harvest reductions.  But even venerable Massachusetts, arguably the spiritual heart of the opposition to federal fishery management, didn’t exist four hundred years ago.

Thus, it’s hard to argue that the cultural significance of, say, Georges Bank cod permeates the culture of coastal New England in the way that salmon permeates the cultures of the western Washington tribes.  As Shawn Yanity, chairman and fisheries manager for the Stillaguamish Tribe observes,

“They’ve always fed our people.  They’re one of the links between us and the river.  They’re in our songs, they’re in our stories, they’re in our creation.”
Yet, despite the importance of the salmon harvest to the Washington tribes, Loomis said, on behalf of the twenty tribes belonging to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission,

“Our cultures, treaty rights and economies depend on salmon.  But the resource must come first.
“We face an extraordinary conservation challenge this year.  In many instances returns will likely be far below minimum levels needed to produce the next generation of salmon.  Conservation must be our sole focus as we work to rebuild these stocks.
“We don’t know how many we’ll see, we don’t know how healthy they’ll be, and we don’t know how many eggs they’ll have.  That means we need to be careful, because if we don’t know how healthy these fish are when they come back, a lot of damage could be done.
“We have never seen runs this low, so we don’t know how well they might bounce back.  Zero [harvest] must be the starting place for fisheries management this year.  [emphasis added]”
It’s probably impossible for an East Coast angler to fully imagine the sort of hole that a moratorium on salmon harvest would tear into the social, cultural and economic fabric of the western Washington tribes, but we can understand that such tear would be large. 

It would certainly be far, far larger than any temporary, adverse “socio-economic impact” that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act might have on the recreational or commercial fishing industry. 

Yet, while so-called leaders of the recreational fishing community are doing their best to tear the heart out of Magnuson-Stevens, willing to accept greater short-term gains at the long-term health of the resource, and many in the commercial fishing industry are eager to do the same, the united voice of the Washington tribes say “The resource must come first…Conservation must be our sole focus…Zero [harvest] must be the starting place…”

For the tribes understand something that the industry folks, and the “anglers’ rights” spokesmen, are not yet wise enough to know.

If you depend on fish for your very being, you had better protect them well.  For without them, you’re nothing at all.

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