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July 6, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Maintaining treaty rights

Protecting salmon habitat

The frustration of the tribes of Western Washington with the federal government’s failure to protect their treaty-fishing rights, and the state’s failure to honor those treaties is more than understandable [“Tribes say treaty rights with U.S. are at risk,”NWMonday, July 2].

The tribes’ rights to half the share of the annual salmon harvest and to fish at their usual and accustomed places are at risk. Why? We are losing salmon habitat in Western Washington at an alarming rate.

Tribal, state and federal experts agree that restoring habitat is the most important factor in restoring salmon runs — but we are not doing it, we are doing the opposite. When push comes to shove between the economic gain from development and restoring salmon, fish and the environment often lose.

That tension is front and center in the Dungeness River basin right now. Back in 1993, Washington Fish and Wildlife recommended that the state adopt minimum flows for the Dungeness basin to keep enough water in stream for its four fish species listed under the Endangered Specifies Act. Dungeness Chinook in particular have been close to extinction.

Now finally in 2012, after countless new homes were built that rely on wells that tap the groundwater that feeds the Dungeness River, the Department of Ecology proposed an administrative rule to set minimum flows for the river to protect its threatened salmon. The flows the rule proposes are not what is best for fish in the Dungeness, only what biologists think are achievable.

Nevertheless, there has been uproar. People are concerned that restricting new wells may mean fewer new homes are built or that property values may fall, even though the Department of Ecology has proposed a water bank to allow new development if that new use is “mitigated” by purchasing water to replace what will be used.

This is not illusory; there are willing sellers of water in the Dungeness. (Nonetheless, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy conversely is concerned that the rule defines mitigation too broadly — to include money, land and other types of mitigation. Water for water mitigation is essential. We cannot make new water.)

While many factors go into making good fish habitat, water tops the list. If we are to reverse the decline of fish habitat, we have to use water more judiciously — and we may have to say “no” to some new development.

Western Washington tribes have not sued to protect the fish habitat upon which their treaty rights depend, but other tribes have. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Yakama Nation’s treaty included a right to stream flows that protect salmon, even at the expense of irrigation rights dating back to the early 1900s. The Washington Supreme Court ruled similarly in 1993. Honoring treaty obligations comes down to protecting habitat. Salmon recovery comes down to protecting habitat.

Ensuring that future generations have sustainable clean water and enjoy the bounty of the Pacific Northwest comes down to protecting salmon habitat. Now we have to do it.

— Suzanne Skinner, Seattle

Putting the resource first

The article quotes the executive director of Northwest Fisheries Commission, which represents several tribes including the Upper Skagit, claiming their treaty rights are at risk because of dwindling salmon habitat.

It quotes a number of tribal leaders as well as an administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), all of whom seem to agree that salmon habitat needs to be protected better, restored and improved. I agree.

What they glaringly overlook are facts that don’t seem to get much, if any, media attention. Our state and federal government have had some success improving salmon runs in Puget Sound, the Columbia River and in other coastal rivers lately.

Much improvement has occurred at the expense of nontribal-user groups. For example, because the wild Chinook on the Skagit River have been declared “endangered,” there is a prohibition against harvest. Fines, confiscation of gear, vehicles and incarceration have been imposed.

Also, in the agreement between the state and tribes, is a provision that gives the state authority to close a fishery for “conservation purposes.” The state closed the popular “catch-and-release” native steelhead fishery in late winter through April. Unfortunately, there were tribal nets in the Skagit River this spring which were harvesting both endangered Chinook and native late-winter steelhead.

Either the state refused to enforce their authority to solely “conserve” fisheries, or our local tribes chose to ignore them, and the Endangered Species Act. Why fight so hard to improve habitat when you are indiscriminately destroying the very resource that this habitat will produce?

Why do you scream “discrimination!” when you are not only discriminating against nontribal-users groups, but against the very resource you are claiming you are trying to protect?

Isn’t it about time we all started “putting the resource first,” not only with regard to their habitat, but with regard to their protection, their harvest and management, rather than politics!

— David L. Yamashita, Burlington

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