Fisheries group seeks greater voice for region

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Lauren and Max Johnson proudly show off spring Chinook they caught in the Snake River in 2010.

Years ago when seemingly inexhaustible numbers of salmon returned to the mighty Columbia River each year, fishery managers had a relatively easy task when it came to setting seasons and catch limits.

For recreational and commercial fishers of that period, those were good times. Opportunities to fish were plentiful and regulations were relatively simple to understand.

Unfortunately, those times have long since faded to the distant memories of only the oldest generation of anglers.

Today, the process of managing salmon in the Columbia and its tributaries is challenging beyond belief, driven by court-mandated agreements that are largely dependent on the use of complex statistical models to forecast how many of each species of salmon are expected to return to major river and stream areas.

To further complicate matters, fisheries must also be managed based on tightly controlled limits that restrict the allowable catch based on provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Nowhere is this truer perhaps than for the most highly prized of all salmon that swim in the Columbia River system: the spring Chinook.

Since 1969, management of Columbia River salmon has been driven by a federal court case known as U.S. v. Oregon, in which the court instructed fishery managers from Washington and Oregon to work with Columbia River Treaty tribes (the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Yakama) to establish seasons and harvest allocations for both treaty and non-treaty salmon fisheries in the Columbia River.

In a nutshell, the initial U.S. v. Oregon ruling stipulated that like the Boldt Decision of 1974, treaty and non-treaty salmon harvest must be balanced equally, with each entitled to half of the total harvest.

This sharing of the salmon harvest, while controversial at the time, has since become an accepted principle of honoring tribal rights dating back to the Treaty of 1855.

With this in mind, the court encouraged the states and tribes to "work out for themselves" the details of how its ruling would be implemented.

Beginning in 1977 a series of multiyear agreements were negotiated that established the framework for how salmon fisheries would be managed in the Columbia River system.

The most recent, the 2008-2017 U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement, took more than 10 years to negotiate.

In applying the current agreement, Bonneville Dam is normally used by state and tribal fishery managers as a dividing line for setting seasons and harvest allocations. Tribal fisheries occur mostly above Bonneville Dam in the portion of the Columbia between Bonneville and McNary Dams.

Non-treaty salmon fisheries occur from the mouth of the Columbia, at Buoy 10, throughout the system, which includes the Snake River in Southeastern Washington.

For a variety of reasons an imbalance has developed in the non-treaty recreational harvest that, more often than not, has resulted in seasons and catch allocations for spring Chinook above Bonneville being diminished, sometimes quite drastically.

In 2008, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission developed and adopted a five-year policy often referred to as the "75/25 Agreement."

The policy states that for 2009 through 2013, recreational salmon allocations in the Washington portion of the Columbia River will be managed to provide for 75 percent of the sport harvest of spring Chinook to occur below Bonneville Dam. The remaining 25 percent of the sport catch is allotted to the portion of the mid-Columbia between Bonneville and McNary Dams and the Snake River.

In recent years, data shows that more than half the spring Chinook returning to the Columbia River each year are destined for the Snake River. In the three years since the policy was adopted, the recreational harvest above Bonneville has reached the 25 percent level only once, in 2011, and has averaged only 14.9 percent since 2001.

One of the factors contributing to this imbalance has been a lack of stakeholder representation for upriver fisheries. For years, fishery managers have relied on an 18-member Columbia River Recreational Fishing Advisory Group to provide stakeholder input.

Made up of nine citizen representatives from Oregon and nine from Washington appointed to serve two-year terms, the only "eastside" member from either state has hailed from the mid-Columbia community of White Salmon.

As a step to help address this shortcoming, Tri-State Steelheaders requested and received an appointment to the Advisory Group beginning this year in an effort to voice interests and concerns for upriver fisheries, especially those involving spring Chinook in the Snake River.

In recent months TSS and other stakeholders representing southeast Washington have begun to draw attention to the need for a more consistent and equitable allocation of salmon harvest from Bonneville Dam all the way to the Clarkston/Lewiston area.

Aside from the strong recreational interests, it is important for fishery managers and agency administrators to also recognize the significant economic benefits these fisheries provide to communities east of the "Cascade Curtain," as well as the sacrifices and support provided by private landowners, the conservation community and upriver tribes to restore vital habitat necessary for salmon and steelhead so these prized natural resources can continue to survive and thrive for the benefit of generations to come.

For progress reports regarding this effort and to learn more about the 2008-2017 U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement, the "75/25" policy and the ongoing Columbia River season and harvest allocation process, visit the Tri-State Steelheaders website at www.tristatesteelheaders.com.

Mike Birely is executive director of Tri-State Steelheaders, a nonprofit community-based fisheries enhancement organization serving Southeastern Washington and the surrounding region since 1965.

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