U.S.-Canada salmon agreement proposed

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The U.S. and Canada have reached a new 10-year agreement aimed at preventing overfishing of salmon off the western coast of Canada and southeast Alaska.

The plan announced Thursday by the Pacific Salmon Commission could most affect chinook salmon, which migrate from Washington state north to the waters of British Columbia and Alaska, where they often get caught by sport and commercial fisheries, preventing their return to Washington's waters.

Under the proposed change to the existing Pacific Salmon Treaty, the U.S. would give Canada $30 million for its effort to reduce commercial salmon fishing; Alaska would receive about $7 million. Washington state would receive about $7 million in federal money to improve chinook habitat.

Alaska will reduce its catch of wild salmon 15 percent over the next 10 years; Canada will make a 30 percent reduction under the plan.

David Bedford, Alaska's representative on the salmon commission, said in a statement that the catch reduction "is a tough position for us to accept."

"While we had to make some sacrifices to reach this agreement, we were convinced that this is a responsible agreement that provides stability for our fisheries and helps ensure the long-term health and sustainability of shared salmon resources," he said.

In addition to management of chinook, the plan addresses coho, chum and pink and sockeye salmon. Officials believe it could allow about 1 million more chinook to return to hatcheries or spawning areas in Puget Sound and the Columbia River.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire called the agreement historic.

"This could not have happened had we not come with a common goal and a collaborative approach," she told The Associated Press. "We now have a fighting chance to save the salmon."

The agreement needs to be approved by federal officials and the Canadian government; the money that will be allocated to Canada, Alaska and Washington needs congressional approval.

Paul Macgillivray, associate regional director general for the Pacific Region Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said that while Canada does have to reduce a large portion of its harvest, it benefits from the Alaskan reduction.

Macgillivray, who also serves on the Pacific Salmon Commission, said that two Canadian stocks, the West Coast Vancouver Island and Fraser River chinook, were among those that often got snagged in Alaska, along with those that originated from Washington.

He said that the final agreement was a "balanced approach where both countries made reductions in response to conservation concerns that were brought to the table."

The fishing arrangements under the 1985 treaty between the U.S. and Canada are up for renewal at the end of this year, and the new agreement covers U.S. and Canadian management plans from 2009-2018. Macgillivray said participants have until the end of the year to get both governments to sign off on the agreement.

In two years, the Pacific Salmon Commission will renegotiate fishing arrangements for the Fraser River system in Canada.

The treaty was written to prevent the overfishing of Pacific salmon and to determine how the harvests should be divided among Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Canada.

The new agreement covers fish returning to Washington and Oregon, and covers both Columbia River and Puget Sound stocks.

The reduction in catch in northern ocean fisheries will increase annual returns of summer and fall chinook to the Upper Columbia River by 3 percent to 7 percent, a significant improvement from the 1999 agreement, said Olney Pratt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and U.S. tribal commissioner on the salmon commission.

"Chinook was the most complex piece of the puzzle because the fish migrate through many jurisdictions," said Pratt, who represented 24 treaty fishing tribes from the Puget Sound region, the Washington coast and the Columbia River area.

Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and chairman of the Pacific Salmon Commission, said reaching this year's agreement was difficult, but a far cry from the acrimony when the fishing agreements were last negotiated in the 1990s. In 1997, British Columbia fishermen, angered by what they perceived as Alaskan overfishing, blocked an Alaska state ferry in the harbor at Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

During the 20-month negotiation, Koenings said there were many times when he wasn't optimistic an agreement was possible, but that all parties focused on conservation.

"It switched the debate back to, 'How do we protect what we have,' rather than 'How do we fish what we don't have?"' he said.

The agreement comes just a month after federal authorities declared the West Coast ocean salmon fishery a failure, opening the way for Congress to appropriate economic disaster assistance for coastal communities in California, Oregon and Washington.

The declaration stemmed from the sudden collapse of the chinook salmon run in California's Sacramento River, another place the salmon return to spawn. Scientists are studying the causes of the collapse, with possible factors ranging from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution.

Washington state has seen severe declines as well, Koenings said.

"The fish are just not materializing and we don't know why," he said.

The agreement does not address the coastal salmon fishery collapse, but officials said that return of salmon from the north will help with the fisheries problems that Washington and Oregon are having.

Bill Ruckelshaus, chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership and a former Environmental Protection Agency chief, said the increase of about 100,000 chinook returning to the region each year will help Washington's goal of ultimately removing the fish from endangered status.

"Our goal is to restore the whole ecosystem in Puget Sound," he said. "Restoring the salmon is a big part of that."

The governors of Washington, Oregon and California have estimated that losses from the coastal fishing collapse will rise to about $290 million as they ripple through the economy. California is seeking $208 million in disaster aid, Oregon $45 million and Washington $36 million.

The recently approved farm bill also includes $170 million for the Pacific Coast salmon fishing industry. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a war-spending package that includes $75 million to help alleviate economic impacts related to fishery disasters around the country.

"Our commercial and recreational fishing industries are facing closures because of record-low salmon populations," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "This funding will help to support our fishing industry which is so critical to our state's overall economic health."

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