Tribe says it’s not to blame for dead seals

OLYMPIA — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday the Squaxin Tribe does not have permission to kill seals that interfere with its fishing, an issue raised after an unusual number of harbor seals washed up dead.

The tribe, however, said it does not hunt seals, pointing instead to boat traffic, environmental pollution and accidental entanglements in fishing nets as possible causes for the seal deaths.

According to Cascadia Research, a marine-mammal research group, 17 dead seals have been found in the past two months in southern Puget Sound. Researchers say the animals had been shot or showed signs of head, neck and body trauma, or starvation.

The tribe wasn’t linked to the seal deaths, but the Olympian newspaper on Thursday quoted a tribal natural resources official as saying the tribe had permission from NOAA Fisheries to harass and even kill harbor seals that interfere with its salmon fishery.

The tribe operates the Squaxin Island tribal gillnet salmon fishery. Several hundred harbor seals, which are known to chew on salmon caught in gillnets, live in nearby waters.

But in a written statement issued late Thursday, the tribe said it “does not engage in a directed hunt of harbor seals,” although it acknowledged the seals can drown when they accidentally become entangled in fishing nets.

“There’s no good reason to blame the tribe for an increase in harbor seal deaths,” Jim Peters, Squaxin Island tribal chairman, wrote. “Growing boat traffic and a sick Puget Sound are the primary reasons for these animals’ deaths.

“We will continue to work closely with the state and federal governments to protect and restore the health of Puget Sound and all of its inhabitants.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 restricts the harassment or killing of marine mammals. However, the federal law allows people to deter marine mammals from damaging private property, including fishing gear and catch, as long as the methods don’t kill or seriously injure the animals.

While the tribe is exempt for accidental deaths, any purposeful harassment or killing of the seals requires a waiver, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said.

The tribe’s statement said it had received no reports of any of its tribal fishers shooting a harbor seal, and said it “fully regulates its treaty salmon fisheries in south Puget Sound, including providing a significant enforcement presence on the water.”

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