Makah's fish take angers anglers - Governor asks state to look into high chinook catch


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Gov. Christine Gregoire, under pressure from sport fishermen, is asking state officials to explain how the Makah Tribe was able to catch 12 times more chinook salmon than anticipated this winter and how to prevent such a discrepancy from happening again.

Fearing that the tribe's catch might impair this summer's recreational salmon fishing, some anglers have contacted Gregoire and other politicians asking why the state Fish and Wildlife Department failed to stop the harvest.

"The governor has asked the director to share with her some answers about how it happened and what the impact might be and what the department plans to do to prevent and mitigate it in the future," Elliot Marks, Gregoire's natural resources adviser, said yesterday.

State and tribal representatives jointly establish fishing guidelines, but state officials cannot legally dictate the number of fish that Native Americans can take.

The Makah Tribe defended its catch as entirely within established procedure and said it should not have any impact on protected stocks of fish or on non-Indian fishing seasons.

Russell Svec, Makah fisheries manager, said the tribe closed its fishery this month despite the original closing date of April 15. He noted that fisheries managed under the guidelines are traditionally allowed to continue despite high catch rates.

"I'm really frustrated by how all this came about, the misconception of how we manage our fisheries and relations with the state," he said. "This was a seasonal fishery. The impacts on stocks of concern are very, very small. You're taking about a handful of fish. We had no concerns it would affect other fisheries."

At issue is a troll season for the Makah Tribe that began in November and had a catch guideline of 1,600 chinook, as set by state and tribal managers.

However, because fishing was unusually good in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and more tribal fishermen turned out for the fishery than usual because of high fish prices, the tribe had taken more than 19,000 chinook when it cut the season short earlier this month.

Fearing the catch might cause cuts in this summer's salmon seasons, alarmed state biologists informed members of the Fish and Wildlife Department's salmon advisory panel. Word got out to sport fishermen, who reacted angrily, some calling for a boycott of businesses at Neah Bay, where the Makah are based.

Svec noted that in years past the Makah's winter troll fishery had taken as many as 50,000 chinook, but the tribe voluntarily cut back catches beginning in the 1990s to protect weak stocks. He said the tribe did review the fishery when catch rates were high during the recent season but felt it was safe to continue fishing.

"Based on what we've been seeing in the ocean the last couple years and in the winter troll fishery, we felt it was safe to assume populations of these stocks were probably greater than anticipated," he said.

Sport anglers point out that all of their seasons are closely monitored and typically closed when catch rates are higher than expected. And with Puget Sound wild chinook now protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and several Snake River and Columbia River chinook stocks listed as either threatened or endangered, a catch beyond pre-season expectations could have serious ramifications for subsequent fisheries.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said yesterday that he had heard from many unhappy anglers and shares their concerns.

"I have talked to the tribe, and they feel that in the past they've taken higher numbers and haven't done anything wrong," he said. "If this is going to be a problem, we've got to change the rules and make the numbers firm, especially if it's going to impact other fishermen."

Phil Anderson, Fish and Wildlife policy coordinator, said it is too early to tell whether the Makah catch will reduce seasons for non-Indians.

State analyses of the chinook stocks likely taken in the Makah fishery show most were of hatchery origin but that five were of wild Hood Canal stocks and some were of protected Snake River stocks. Steve Sande of Brier, president of the sport fishing group Puget Sound Anglers, noted that the five Hood Canal chinook taken by the tribe were out of an expected run of only 200.

"The fish scientists tell us it will take another 20,000 chinook (available for catch this summer) to mitigate that problem," he said. "Our position is the payback for this over-harvest should come directly out of the Makah share (this summer) and not one fish out of the sportsmen's quota."

Sande said he is not currently seeking a boycott of Neah Bay and instead will seek a meeting with the tribe. Svec said the tribe would welcome a meeting.

"We're more than happy to sit down and talk about it," he said. "For us, we have a vital interest in protecting those resources. They are what defines who the Makah people are."

Anderson acknowledged that the state should have kept better informed about how the tribal catch was proceeding and urged anglers to give the state and tribe a chance to sort things out.

P-I reporter Greg Johnston can be reached at 206-448-8014 or



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