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A Dead Fish is a Dead Fish, Right?

Trollers parked in Steveston, British Columbia. Eighty percent of all Puget Sound salmon harvested are taken from the Georgia Strait and Northern BC Coast.

A Dead Fish is a Dead Fish, Right? WRONG.
By Patrick McGann, SSJ Editor at Large

HARVEST: 3rd of a 4-Part Series

Why do the fisheries managers who set salmon harvests year after year after year continue to blame overharvest of salmon as one of the biggest obstacles to salmon restoration?

“Just because you think everyone is out to get you doesn’t mean they aren’t.” — Joseph Heller

No one cried bigger tears than US Sen. Maria Cantwell when Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens burst at the seams and spewed forth hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea. A disaster, she cried. Must never be allowed to happen again, she cried. And then on Feb. 28, Sen. Cantwell not only voted no, but Hell No on the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (S. 1520) as it passed through the fisheries committee on which the bluish-dog Democrat from Seattle is the ranking member.

It was a voice vote but she insisted that her no vote be recorded. What an odd thing. Who was that message addressed to?

I tried to get an explanation from her to no avail. Sorry. I’m sure it’s just me and not you. Maybe if I lived in Ketchikan and drowned listed Puget Sound salmon in nets for a living.

Can’t fish because of severe season cutbacks? No problem, just go to the fish market and buy one you could have caught yourself. Adipose fin? Fin clipped? Doesn’t matter!

The Modern Fish Act, as it’s known for short, will allow the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to stabilize recreational fishing harvest on three-year cycles instead of annually. That will allow Washington’s and Oregon’s boat manufacturers to stabilize their production and employment. It will allow rod builders and tackle manufacturers to do the same. It will allow boat dealers to make better inventory decisions. The same thing will ripple out through the entire sportfishing industry, to marinas, motels, guides, tackle shops. And most importantly, it will codify the value of the sportfishing industry in the Magnuson-Stevens Act which is coming up for reauthorization.

We should be optimistic about both bills. There is an attempt by movement conservatives to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but they’ll not have the votes. Sportfishing is enjoying broad and bipartisan support in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, the whole east coast, California, the Western fly fishing states and Missouri, thanks to Bass Pro Shops, and then it kind of peters out by the time it gets up to Ballard and on the Kenai.

What we’re talking about here is really the disparity between commercial harvest and non-commercial harvest, where that occurs and why that disparity has such devastating impacts on people and taxpayers in Washington and Oregon.

It would seem that harvest, the third H of four biggest problems facing salmon and steelhead, would be pretty straight forward. Bless me father for I have sinned. I am part of the problem.

You catch too many fish and there won’t be enough. You catch fewer and there will be more. Right? Well, how’s that been working? For 30 years—a century if you throw out the occasional boom years—salmon and steelhead populations have been falling in the Pacific Northwest and harvest reductions have dutifully followed. But … not all harvest reductions follow declines equally.

Tribal, state and federal fisheries managers supposedly try to predict the next beta wave (the fluctuations within the larger trend) and adjust harvest accordingly; but there is no question, we’re downhill skiing. Between the little ups and downs between ocean conditions, droughts, fires, floods and what not, the overall trend is decline. And although harvest might be the easiest one to get minds, great and small, wrapped around, adjusting harvest is probably the least effective in addressing the bigger crisis and turning it around. Severe harvest reduction is crisis management. It is like calling in artillery on your own position when you’ve been overrun.

Unlike the other H’s, addressing overall harvest—in Washington and Oregon—has not increased fish numbers. Perhaps it has blunted sharp run declines, but only temporarily. And that’s hard to prove one way or the other. But what has worked is changing how harvest occurs. And where. We’ll get to that.

Commercial salmon boats working Lynn Canal in Southeast Alaska. British Columbia’s interception of Washington and Oregon salmon is largely in response to interception of BC salmon by Southeast Alaska commercials.

This is one of those problems, like the workings of a sovereign economy, that vexes common sense. You know, the diner-coffee-clutch logic, that a nation’s economy is just like a family of four. It isn’t, of course, not in any sense and thinking like that will only get you into trouble and lead you to idiotic rants, like bawling to remove money from an economy suffering from too little money moving around.

Same with the harvest of anadromous fish. We want our problems to be simple. When we hear someone say, It’s more complicated than that,” we tend to get frustrated with them as if it is they, the ones up to their necks in the details, are what makes it more complicated. Visit any Northwest fishing forum online and you will always see someone poke their pointy head up and say, “We should just quit all fishing for five years!” And then what? We put the problem on pause and resume it it five years?

Sorry. It’s more complicated than that. Yeah, I know …

Here’s the grand simplification: We are harvesting more salmon and steelhead than the available habitat, such as it is, can produce. And this over-harvest is not accidental. It is the product of intense management calculations involving laboriously collected data, byzantine mathematical forecasting, Ultimate Cage Fighting negotiations and politics so dirty it should be vitrified in glass and buried at the bottom of the hole we put spent nuclear fuel in. And the harvest continues to be too much even though its extent is entirely intentional.

The very fisheries managers who regulate harvest say overharvesting is a problem. Go ahead, go to the NOAA fisheries website. Go to the PFMC site. Go the state sites and tribal sites, British Columbia, Alaska. They point to overharvest as a problem and indeed it is.

They’re all talking up the Four-H matrix of problems and then they sit down and come up with an estimate of total allowable harvest in 2018 that in 2020 they will continue to say is over harvest. They’ve been doing this for 30-some years. (Prior to that, when overharvest was not a bug but a feature, they could hardly imagine overharvest.)

But before the heads of biologists and fishery managers all explode in one massive paper bag popping sound, here are the two problems with our grand simplification that makes the problem possible.

1. There isn’t just one Chinook. Not just one coho. Not just one steelhead. There are dozens of each. Some are doing OK. Some are in dire straits. Most fall somewhere in the middle. But if we use historical standards, all the runs are too small.

From the disaster in California and the southern Oregon coast to the mixed bag runs—including the Columbia and all its tributaries—and all the way up to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and back into the turbulence of Puget Sound listings, all those fish are mixed in with other fish, relatively strong runs in with basket cases — clear up to their first brush with nets in the spring in Southeast Alaska.

2. How a fish is harvested and by whom really makes a difference. It’s all the same on paper, all the same on a $4 calculator, but in the real world of curve balls, bean balls, knuckle balls and knuckle heads, the effect motivations have on the system that regulates harvest is extreme.

Harvest management is always relative to abundance. Abundance (from a harvest perspective) is relative to estimated escapement, the number of fish needed to … what? Ah. A complication. If we say that escapement is the number of fish needed to increase wild production by X-percent per year, that may make sense, but it also crosses the Magnuson-Stevens Act which requires “optimum utilization” to benefit fishing communities. Again, and speaking from within the fishing community, how’s that been working?

Once the commercial harvest takes place in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, sport fishermen in Puget Sound, the Columbia, Washington and northern Oregon coasts are left with little to fish for.

Abundance is also measureable. It’s just not measurable really until it’s too late. And it’s also dependent on a gazillion other variables. If we say, which I think the fishery managers definitely don’t want to say, that escapement is the number of fish they think are needed, hopefully, to more or less, kinda, we think, not allow that run to decline too much four years from now, then I think we’re cutting through the gobbledygook a little better.

Can you imagine how hard it must be to manage a particular run knowing that a drought, a cloud of cormorants, seals, sea lions, walleye, bass, pike minnows, a change in pesticide practices, an offshore blob, a mutating Atlantic salmon virus, a brand new high seas catch/process boat coming out of Singapore that just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the dissolving shells of copepods, Orcas trying to save their butts, 10,000 oil-leaking Volvos, el Niños, la Niñas, banditos, YIKES! … and the only easy button you have is telling little people they can’t fish and you know that’s not going to do much good and is probably going to hurt a lot of people and almost certainly get your department sued.

So, the law requires them to maximize harvest to benefit Mr. Loomis and Mr. Buckmaster and me this year, but not in four years, and a different law prohibits them from extirpating a run, so they need to know how many fish there are but their ability to estimate abundance is roughly equivalent to arrowing an apple off some kid’s head while wearing somebody else’s glasses.

Dudes, we feel your pain. So, let’s make it easier.

The people who live in the coastal towns of Washington and Oregon, the people who live in greater Portland and greater Seattle, people all over the Pacific Northwest are enduring a savage regulatory burden in order to keep several salmon and steelhead runs from going extinct. And every few years, a cycle accelerating due to climate change, our iconic passion, fishing for salmon and steelhead, to go out at great expense and often danger to catch our damn fish to eat, is sharply curtailed by a dire assessment of salmon returning to our streams we are paying so damn much to fix.

God help us if these people found out that most of the harvest of these fish we’re bent into pretzels protecting them are being caught somewhere else by people who seriously don’t give a rat’s ass what hell we’re being put through. And further, that our own politicians are helping them do it.

But that is exactly what is happening. So, when someone tells you that one of the four H’s is harvest, get in their face and ask them, “Whose harvest?”

Eighty percent of the harvest of Puget Sound Chinook, which are virtually all listed as threatened, are killed in British Columbia. British Columbia says sorry about that, eh, but you know we’re in the same ‘boot’ because our fish are being intercepted in Southeast Alaska. You know, it’s not all commercial either. I love going to BC to fish and yes, I know on the west side of Vancouver Island, the fish I’m catching, fin clipped, are probably headed for the Columbia or a Washington or Oregon coastal stream. Father, I have sinned. It has been 15 minutes since my last confession. But what can you do? Stay home where I can’t fish or can but where there are no fish to catch?

And while we’re tearing up unfair trade deals and treaties all over the world screwing American farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, grocery distributors, and moving armies into positions to kill thousands of people, that little old Pacific Salmon Treaty is just sitting there, a crazy memorial to the depravity of the late Sen. Ted Stevens and ruthlessness of Rep. Don Young, allowing this all to continue.

This is all a massive con job. Gov. Inslee’s and the tribe’s and the fishing community’s call to increase hatchery production to help Orca whales… OK, cool, but. Well, there’s a problem with that. Those hatchery fish are going to get butchered in Northern B.C. and the Strait of Georgia and only a small fraction will make it back to help Puget Sound rivers and whales and fishermen. And the Washington and Oregon coast stream fish? They’ll be slaughtered to the north and west of Vancouver Island. So, the intermingling of runs that causes so much mayhem will be made worse. The weakest runs will be subjected to the most intense harvest in Canada. The most stringent restrictions, however, will be directed at fishers in Washington and Oregon.

Sic Donald Trump and his flying monkeys on B.C.? They’ll just shrug. They’re in the same exact pickle. And why? Because nearly 70 percent of the harvest for BC-bound Chinook, wild and hatchery, is in Southeast Alaska.

Tell this to the Alaska seafood industry and you’ll get a big ol’ middle finger, if you get any reaction at all. I know this from years of experience. I urge you to call your US Senator and… Oh, wait. That’s right. Trident Seafoods. Peter Pan Seafoods. Ivar’s are in bed with them.

The states of Washington and Oregon and the Puget Sound Tribes and possibly NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, with the ankle snapping yips of the Wild Fish Conservancy, are moving toward a reduction of salmon fishing activity in saltwater, trying to shift it toward terminal fisheries in rivers. Shift what? It. What’s ‘it’?

We are ‘it.’ I am ‘it.’ And I don’t like it. I live to fish those waters. Who am I? I’m you and you’re me.

Obviously, they are not trying to move the Southeast Alaska, West Coast Vancouver Island, Northern B.C., Washington or Oregon troll fisheries, the set, gill and drift nets, the destination sport fisheries — love ya, baby — to the rivers of origin, so this ‘solution’ really only applies to a tiny fraction of the problem.
And by tiny, I really mean tiny. With fin-clip marking, hatchery fish can be selected by one angler one fish at a time, among smaller numbers, by definition, of intermingled weak strain fish. And mortality of non-marked fish is a small fraction of those listed fish caught and improperly released. We don’t really know what hooking mortality is but it’s already included as a percentage of the allocation of non-commercial fishers which, as a number, a percentage, is a cynical joke compared to the non-selective or comedy-selective net fisheries in BC and Southeast Alaska.

The saltwater non-commercial effort in Washington and Oregon is the highest economic value fishery per angler and per fish we have. And it is being raped by the least economically valuable fisheries. Half of the harvest in Southeast Alaska is on Washington and Oregon coastal fish and Columbia River fish; and up there they are about half the size they will be when they reach Oregon and Washington waters. It is criminal to prioritize those fisheries.

And yet the largest salmon processor in the world Trident Seafoods has processing plants all over Southeast Alaska to intercept, fillet and freeze those immature salmon as well as stuff them into savory salmon Fancy Feast classic patè cat food or something. And why are they up there doing that? Simple. Because up there, under the cover of two single-minded senators and a single single-minded Congressman, and the ditzyness of our own representatives, they can avoid the pain that we’re having to go through. These guys aren’t stupid. Just the opposite.

Over harvest is not created equally. And neither is the assigned responsibility. In Washington State 75 percent of the allowable harvest is commercial because half the harvest is tribal commercial and then the remaining non-tribal allowable harvest is split between non-commercial and commercial. Tribal commercial and non-tribal commercial are commercial. There is no difference between them. None.

Theoretically, if we could somehow address the inequities of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, it would enlarge the total allowable harvest in Oregon and Washington and benefit the entire salmon community, commercial and non. We have seen situations recently in the Columbia where the sport fishing harvest capability has been exceeded by the sheer numbers of fish. And that has left a bounty for tribal commercial harvest.

It is possible, but I don’t think we can get there at all as long as that interception fishery in Southeast Alaska is allowed to wreak such havoc on British Columbia, Washington and Oregon salmon. With state of the art technology continually improved by record profits in vertical integration of those fisheries, they will respond to abundance there and prevent abundance to the south. They have that ability.

We’ve seen this before. In the late 1800s market gunners reached a level of market development, from harvest to distribution to cooling systems, packaging, retailing, advertising and advocacy, where the upper echelons of the industry food chain were able to increase consumer demand with fresher product and lower prices due to larger supplies provided by increasingly efficient harvest of game and fish.

Releasing wild salmon, sport fishermen do their part.

One such deer harvesting method in the mid-Atlantic and northern tier states was to use high-fence funnels to drive deer into lakes where waiting boats could get between the hapless deer and shore and come along side where a modern harvester could grab an ear or horn and slash the product’s throat. Entire herds were skinned and gutted, put on ice, processed, packaged, and shipped to restaurants in Chicago and the northeast with ancillary products sorted and sold in mere days usually on advanced contracts.

This appalled a man whose idea of relaxation was shooting a charging grizzly bear in the face at bad breath range who then formed an organization dedicated to fair chase and restrictions on harvest methods and ultimately to condemn the pressure exerted by the commercial system itself which was rapidly denuding the land of freshwater fish and game.

The harvesters considered them a bunch of rich dandies and their club to be an institution for wealthy lounging. And there was no shortage of mercantile push back. But this guy got himself elected president in 1900 and in 1901 one of his buddies, John Lacey, who was a Congressman, got his name on an act, the Lacey Act, that stopped interstate trade in poached fish and game. By 1905, seeing the imminent threat of profit motive on wild fish and animals, most states passed stark and sweeping laws prohibiting commercial harvest that was then backed up by federal law.

That guy, of course, was Teddy Roosevelt. I have no doubt whatsoever that one look at what is happening to the great salmon and steelhead runs of the Pacific Northwest and he would come unglued. He wouldn’t be confused about what to do, either.

Does that mean that one day all commercial harvest of salmon and steelhead will have to end? I don’t know. I am a good customer of commercial fishers and shell fishers. I respect their success and I very much appreciate their help on habitat issues. But I know history and I know how utterly destructive a profit motive can be by resource extraction industries. And I also believe that profit motive run amok really is what is killing salmon. I also know that American fish and wildlife populations were literally brought back from the brink of extinction by sport hunters and sport fishers to the indifference of the general public. None of the great clear-cutting, strip-mining robber barons are heroes of history. They were mostly criminals without laws to stop them. None of them are the stature of Gifford Pinchot, Frank Church, Ding Darling, John Burroughs, Margaret Murie, Bob Marshall, John Lacey, John Muir, Mo Udall, William O. Douglas, Rachel Carson, George Bird Grinnell, and many others, especially Theodore Roosevelt. They understood one harvest from another.

Senator Cantwell, that’s the kind of people we need you to be right now.

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