Habitat Must Carry More Weight

“Being Frank”

By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


A heavy burden is easier to carry if everyone who shares in the load does their part to help support the weight.

It’s the same with salmon conservation.

We all value salmon and we all must share the burden to protect and restore this rapidly disappearing resource. We must spread the weight of the burden of conservation across harvest, hatcheries and habitat because these are the factors that most influence the health of the salmon resource.

While each is an equally important part of salmon management, harvest has historically shouldered most of the conservation load. Since the mid-1980s, harvest has been reduced by more than 80 percent to protect weak wild salmon stocks.

As the resource continues to decline, tribal and state fisheries are more regulated than ever before to sustain the resource, yet every day we are losing the fight for recovery. Salmon populations are declining because their habitat is disappearing faster than it can be restored.

Meanwhile, the hatcheries that were built to make up for fish lost because of damaged habitat are under increasingly heavy attack. Opponents want them all closed. They claim hatcheries produce genetically inferior fish that sometimes stray onto spawning grounds and pass along their genes to wild fish.

But if wild fish continue to disappear because of lost habitat, and hatcheries can no longer produce salmon for harvest, there won’t be any fishing for anyone.

Our treaty-reserved rights include the right to have fish available for harvest. We did not give up nearly all of the land in western Washington so that we can put our nets in the water and pull them up empty time after time.

State government budget shortfalls and the effects of climate change are making things worse.

Because of the ongoing loss of habitat, we are becoming more and more dependent on hatcheries to provide salmon for harvest. Today more than half of the salmon harvested in western Washington are hatchery fish.

Tribes are increasingly concerned about the ongoing reduction in funding for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In just the past six years alone, the department has cut more than $50 million from its budget, much of it from hatchery production. We don’t yet know how much funding the agency will receive for the next couple of years, but further cuts could lead to closure of some hatcheries and reduced production at others.

Tribes already are picking up the check more and more to keep salmon coming back for everyone who lives here. From taking over some state hatchery operations to buying fish food and donating cash and labor, tribes are working to keep up hatchery production. This is in addition to the 40 million salmon and steelhead that tribal hatcheries release annually.

Meanwhile, the added effects of climate change are causing more harm to salmon throughout their entire life cycle. A record low snowpack, low stream flows and increasing water temperatures, combined with the results of ongoing habitat loss and declining marine survival, are forcing tribal and state co-managers to implement some of the most restrictive fishing seasons ever seen.

Salmon are in a spiral to extinction today, along with our treaty-protected fishing rights. Something has to change. That “something” is the share of the conservation burden carried by habitat. Right now, the treaty tribes are doing most of the work to protect and restore salmon habitat.

The tribes and state operate safe, responsible hatchery programs that are guided by the best available science. We will need these hatcheries for as long as habitat continues to limit natural production from our watersheds.

If eliminating harvest was the solution to salmon recovery, we would have accomplished it a long time ago.  That is because habitat – more than any other factor – determines the health of the salmon resource.

We have lost more fish to disappearing habitat than have been or ever will be harvested. If we want more fish, we have to protect the habitat that both hatchery and wild salmon depend on.

We may not be able to do much to control climate change, but we can do a lot more to stop the loss and damage of salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Let’s start by enforcing laws already on the books to protect salmon habitat and stop the bleeding in our watersheds.

The burden of conservation must be better shared by habitat if we are going to recover salmon. Harvest and hatcheries have been carrying most of the weight for far too long.