Major Fight Shapes up Over Salmon Harvest in the Columbia River

BONNEVILLE, Ore. (CN) – Agreements that have reigned for a decade on how to divide the catch of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin expired on the last day of 2017. The new plan is so contentious that multiple sides have promised to sue over it. What are the outrageous details? Same as the current ones. But the moment is a pressure point that allows old arguments to resurface.

The current agreement, which expired at midnight on Dec. 31, allocates half of the harvestable salmon and steelhead to four tribes: the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. The majority of the other half goes to sports fishermen, and commercial fishermen get the rest.

That framework will likely continue for the next 10 years, according to a final environmental impact statement released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which lists a continuation of the current agreement as its “preferred alternative.”

But maintaining the status quo probably won’t come without a fight.

In the landmark lawsuit United States v. Oregon, first filed in 1968, the Department of Justice argued that the state was illegally overriding the federal government’s treaty obligations to Oregon’s Native Americans by letting commercial and sports fishermen claim the vast majority of the salmon catch in the Columbia River.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Belloni held in 1969 that the government had guaranteed the ability to fish salmon to five Columbia River Indian tribes. Belloni found that tribal leaders and U.S. government officials who signed the 1855 Treaty with the Tribes of Middle Oregon based their agreement on an important assumption: that healthy populations of fish would exist forever. Otherwise, Judge Belloni reasoned, why would the tribes have traded vast tracts of land for fishing rights that would last “in perpetuity”?

The case set a precedent that forced the government to let tribes catch half of the fish that the government determines can be killed each year. And the ruling had an important environmental effect. It meant that the government is obligated to protect and restore depleted runs of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, not only under the Endangered Species Act, but also under the 1855 treaty.

That year, the Columbia River Treaty Tribes agreed to cede modern-day northern Oregon to the U.S. government – everything from the Columbia River south to Mount Jefferson and from the Pacific Ocean east to the Blue Mountains. In return, they kept a chunk of land near Mount Jefferson and the right to fish, hunt and gather in their “usual and accustomed” places.  The government also promised cash payments and housing that never materialized.

But salmon runs in the Columbia River and its tributaries have dwindled, their populations battered by churning dams, warming oceans and drought. Each year, scientists with the NOAA study salmon returns to determine how many fish can be caught by tribes, commercial fishermen and sport anglers, while still maintaining a population capable of perpetuating itself.

Where those “excess” fish end up is the subject of much debate.

Tribes want them for religious and cultural use. Commercial fishermen say they are preserving a historic livelihood. Anglers say their sport pumps money into local economies. Farmers say their crops should come before fish. All the while, huge tech companies depend on cheap hydroelectricity to run the data centers that are popping up along the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

In a separate court case, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the amount of water spilled over the dams in the Columbia River Basin – an attempt to aid dwindling populations of salmon.

And that doesn’t come cheap.

Spilling water over the dams costs Bonneville Power Administration more than $120 million per year in lost revenue from water that could have generated electricity in its turbines. That’s in addition to the $300 million in profit sharing it forks over to fund the Northwest Power Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program to help improve habitat lost to dams.

Terry Flores, executive director for Northwest River Partners, said the new salmon harvest agreements were the result of a “fundamentally unfair process.”

Northwest River Partners is an association of hydroelectric districts.

“Agencies want to keep focus on hydrosystem,” Flores said in an interview. “But the fact is, it’s the largest restoration system in the nation for the species. The longer you can keep the focus solely on hydrosystem, the less attention is brought to bear on hatcheries and harvest. It’s just easier to keep blaming the hydrosystem and that’s just not going to help the fish recover.”

Lawyer James Buchal, chairman of the Republican Party for Multnomah County, represents farmers who want water for irrigation in the high desert of eastern Oregon. Buchal says the problem salmon face isn’t dams – it’s fishing.

“There isn’t any other endangered species that you can buy at the supermarket or off the back of a truck for a few bucks per pound,” Buchal said in an interview. “Every other ESA species has a ban. So if we’re serious about saving this species there should be a ban.”

David Moskowitz, executive director of wild fish advocacy group The Conservation Angler, says the organization is considering a challenge to the new plan based on what he calls a lack of clarity.

“This thing is so bizarre,” he told Courthouse News. “What is going to be the actual result on harvest and the hatcheries? It’s not clear what the impacts to the environment would be.”

Moskowitz agrees with Buchal on one thing – he says angling and commercial fishing should be tightly restricted on the Columbia River, possibly even stopped altogether.

“We’re still out there fishing like it’s 1950,” Moskowitz says. “We believe that it’s time to start treating these fish in a way that reflects their circumstances as they hang on the edge of extinction.”

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