The state of Washington and tribes must not give up on reaching a salmon-fishing plan together. Then they must improve the process of divvying up the limited number of fish available to catch in and around Puget Sound.
TWO great icons of life in the Puget Sound region are in jeopardy: The remarkable salmon that live in our midst and the opportunity to fish for them in local waters.
Everyone agrees that more must be done to conserve dwindling wild salmon runs and help them recover from habitat degradation, climate pressures and overfishing.
Doing so while preserving fishing traditions of tribes, anglers and those who make a living fishing has always been tricky.
Now the region has reached a breaking point. The state and tribes are at a stalemate over how to divvy up the limited number of salmon that can be caught in and around Puget Sound without further harming the runs.
State and tribal leaders must now do two things: keep trying to reach a deal for this summer season and salvage the process they use to comanage the resource.
The process must be improved so it can withstand the pressure of further salmon declines. Strengthening the process will also ensure that it performs well if and when the runs recover.
After negotiations stalled this spring, the state on May 1 announced that Puget Sound and its major lakes, including lakes Washington and Sammamish, are closed to nontribal fishing until further notice.
Unless an 11th-hour agreement is reached, this closure is likely to remain in place through the season.
At stake is more than just a summer of fishing.
If the state and tribes fail to reach an agreement, achieving a consensus on future salmon seasons would be even more difficult. Relationships and a negotiation process refined over decades, since the landmark 1974 Boldt decision, would break down.
One outcome could be another messy federal lawsuit. State and tribal leaders would then divert energy from working together to manage and restore salmon runs to fighting each other in court.
Meanwhile, tribes are receiving federal permission to fish around Puget Sound, which has frustrated nontribal anglers. But that is the right of tribes under treaty and federal regulations — the feds gave them a green light to conduct limited fishing this season within conservation limits.
Since Puget Sound chinook were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, federal approval has been required for fishing that could intentionally or unintentionally catch protected salmon.
Tribes may receive expedited approval — similar to HOV-lane access — because they’re treated as federal entities, affiliated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
When the state and tribes agree on a harvest plan, their joint plan is treated as a federal proposal that gets fast review. That in effect lets the state piggyback on the tribe’s HOV access.
This year, since the state and tribes have yet to reach consensus, they filed separate fishing plans with the federal government.
Tribes still get HOV access. But the state, and the nontribal fishing groups it represents, do not. Its plan must go through a slower process involving public-comment periods and might not be approved before the season ends. If that happens, the state should offer fishing-license refunds to those who can’t reach the coast, the Columbia River or rivers on the Olympic Peninsula and in Southwest Washington, where salmon fishing continues.
There’s still a chance the state and tribes will agree on a joint plan that would receive fast approval, enabling everyone to fish for salmon on Puget Sound this summer. It’s encouraging that new offers were on the table last week and neither side has given up.
Keep at it. Get the deal done for the sake of future generations of fish and people who fish. Then figure out how to improve the process before it starts again in 2017.