Federal judge upholds harvest of Puget Sound chinook salmon

By Gene Johnson
Seattle, Washington (AP) 3-08

A federal judge has upheld harvest levels for chinook salmon in Puget Sound, despite claims from environmentalists that the government is allowing far too many of the prized, threatened fish to be caught.

In a ruling U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik said the National Marine Fisheries Service considered appropriate factors and did not act arbitrarily in 2004 when it approved a five-year salmon management plan drawn up by state and tribal authorities.

“We’re pleased,” said Jeffrey P. Koenings, director of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We worked hard and long to put together that plan.

“The judge looked at what we had presented in terms of due diligence, and page after page he says, ‘I have to defer to the management agencies.”’

The plan seeks to limit the catch of naturally spawning chinook to sustainable levels, a percentage of returning fish that varies by stream. It provides for authorities to take various measures to protect runs, such as delaying the start of a fishing season to allow the fish to move upstream or closing a fishery altogether.

Wild chinook, identifiable by an intact adipose fin, are protected under the Endangered Species Act but are often caught by anglers targeting sockeye, pink or hatchery chinook.

Groups including Wild Fish Conservancy, Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance and Clark-Skamania Flyfishers sued in 2006, saying that the plan puts the focus on harvest rather than on recovery of the troubled salmon runs, allowing too many wild salmon to be caught. In some Western Washington streams, they said, the plan allows wild chinook to be caught even if only 200 fish might reach spawning grounds.

Among their arguments was that the fisheries service acted arbitrarily, failed to consider the risk of extinction and did not use the best available science.

They also argued that Canadians have taken more Puget Sound chinook as they seek to protect their own stocks.

“It’s harvest first, recovery second,” complained Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “There’s not a debate on whether this is a sustainable strategy or not. They are willing to let stocks blink out so they won’t have to interrupt their harvest procedures.

“From passenger pigeons and buffaloes to whales, Atlantic cod and salmon, there’s been denial that there’s a problem until they blink out. It’s always been governments saying there’s not a problem.”

Lasnik said the fisheries service properly considered science in approving the management plan and was entitled to deference as long as it did not act arbitrarily or otherwise break the law.

Marc Slonim, a lawyer for the Makah Tribe, one of 13 tribes involved in the case, said the degradation of salmon habitat limits how much the runs can recover.

“Until we get habitat improvement, there’s a limited effect we can have by constraining fisheries,” he said.