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Salmon trollers, others sue federal agency over catch cutbacks
By Terry Dillman Newport News-Times

The Oregon Trollers Association, the Siuslaw Fishermen's Association, the Pacific Legal Foundation, and a number of individual commercial fishermen are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The dispute focuses on perceived strength of salmon runs, which determine the level of fishing allowed.

Filed June 3 in Unites States District Court in Eugene, their lawsuit claims the agency's decision to slash salmon trolling season almost in half along parts of the West Coast violates federal law. According to Russ Brooks, managing attorney for PLF's Northwest Center, the NMFS action threatens families, businesses, and communities dependent on the fishing industry from Portland to San Francisco. They want NMFS to quash the 2005 chinook management plan and reinstate the fishing levels designated in the 2004 plan.


"Hundreds of fishermen and businesses are facing bankruptcy because the federal government won't let people fish, despite the fact the ocean is teeming with salmon," Brooks said during a June 3 press conference to announce the court filing. "We're bringing this lawsuit to stop the federal government from wreaking economic devastation on fishing communities up and down the Pacific coast for no good reason."

According to findings from the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which makes fishery management recommendations to NMFS for Pacific salmon fisheries, the primary impact on the proposed 2005 season stemmed from meager numbers of Klamath fall chinook.

While Oregon used two in-season actions to reduce commercial fisheries in March and April to provide additional commercial opportunities in May and June, under the current plan, the commercial season will close during July and August, then re-open for varying lengths of time during September and October.

Fishermen, coastal business owners, and others say the NMFS decision to "virtually eliminate" the 2005 season for salmon fisheries off the coasts of Oregon and California is based mostly on "selective counting" of naturally-spawned chinook salmon, while ignoring "record numbers" that exist if hatchery-spawned chinook factor into the equation. When hatchery fish are counted, the PFMC findings show a Central Valley Index (a combination of Sacramento River and Central Valley chinook) forecast twice the 2004 pre-season forecast - a record high, and a Klamath River fall chinook forecast that is 1.11 times last year's pre-season predictions.

Fishermen say those high hatchery fish runs should translate into heavier fishing.

Federal biologists say their task is to protect wild salmon under the Endangered Species Act, no matter how many hatchery fish make it into the ocean. They must base fishing limits - designed to keep wild fish populations from dropping below certain levels - on ecological standards, not economic considerations.

The plaintiffs say the "dramatically shortened" season has ramifications that go "well beyond" the fishermen themselves to encompass fishing vessel deckhands, fish plant workers, stores that sell gear and ice to fishermen, seafood processors, seafood market owners, local restaurant owners, and restaurant workers.

"It's not just a single fishing season that's at stake here, it's the future of thousands of hardworking American families and a way of life that has existed for over 100 years," Brooks noted. "People employed throughout the fishing industry are going to lose their fishing vessels, their homes, and everything they have. Once that happens, these communities are not going to be able to recover. It's impossible to overstate the seriousness of this situation."

Disregard for the economic and safety impacts of the harvest regulation on commercial chinook salmon fishermen and the small businesses that depend on fishery is at the heart of the lawsuit. Brooks et al claim that NMFS must base fishing limits not on the Endangered Species Act, but another federal standard.

Concerned about the threat of conservation measures on the survival of fishing communities, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act and the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which Brooks said requires NMFS to examine the potential economic impacts of regulations on fishing communities, and identify alternatives to minimize those effects. According to Brooks, NMFS officials "completely disregarded" those requirements in determining the salmon season cutbacks, and this "ill-considered policy" is only the latest in "a long line of needless regulations' to protect salmon.

"People and businesses continue to suffer under regulations to protect salmon," he concluded. "Farmers and ranchers have their water shut off, families cannot afford to build homes, businesses close, and now fishermen cannot fish, all to protect salmon that don't need protecting."

(Note: Brooks and PLF won a landmark court victory in 2001 that invalidated the federal government's exclusion of hatchery salmon in listing Oregon coast coho under the Endangered Species Act. The court ruling forced NMFS to develop a new policy for listing salmon throughout the West. NMFS is expected to issue the new policy sometime this month.)





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