Tribe to sue U.S. over dwindling salmon runs


Herald Writer

TULALIP — Joe Hatch has one childhood memory he doubts he’ll be able to relive with his own 10-year-old son.

"My dad took me out to catch chinook," said Hatch, 36, a Tulalip tribal member who now fishes commercially.

"It breaks my heart my son can’t do that," Hatch said, adding that wild chinook runs have diminished to the point that Tulalip fishermen haven’t fished them commercially for almost a decade.

The Tulalip Tribes’ concern over waning numbers of wild salmon has led them to file a letter of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency that oversees enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act .

The Fisheries Service listed Puget Sound chinook salmon as a threatened species under the act last year.

The Tulalips’ letter contends that new Fisheries Service guidelines that allow local governments to establish their own conservation plans for conserving chinook salmon aren’t strict enough. If their concerns are not addressed by late December, they intend to file suit against the in Fisheries Service in U.S. District Court, according to the letter of intent.

The new guidelines will take effect in January, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A coalition of environmental groups filed a similar suit against the Fisheries Service recently. The Tulalips are the first American Indian tribe in the state to file such a letter of intent to sue the agency.

The move is mainly defensive, said Terry Williams, commissioner of fish and natural resources for the Tulalips. "It’s like putting your stake in the ground with the courts."

Williams said the Tulalips believe many others will file similar suits soon.

"If that occurs, the outcome will have a great effect on us. We need to be a participant," he said.

Gorman said he wasn’t aware of the Tulalips’ letter or of similar pending suits by environmental groups.

"We usually have 20 or 30 suits filed against us at a time" from a range of interested parties, Gorman said.

He did say the new Fisheries Service guidelines, known as the 4(d) rule, are part of a new approach by the federal agency in enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

Gorman said that in the past, the Fisheries Service would decide each request for exemptions to the Endangered Species Act on an individual basis. The 4(d) rule allows local entities — states, counties and cities — to draw up their own conservation plans, which Fisheries Service then needs to approve.

"They (the local governments) can address specific conditions that are peculiar to that state or region that no general federal regulation could address adequately," Gorman said.

Williams said the Tulalips aren’t disputing whether local conservation plans meet or don’t meet act standards for salmon protection. Their main concern is that the newer, less specific guidelines don’t include measurable results, he said.

He also said the 4(d) rule doesn’t sufficiently meet the requirements of other federal laws, such as tribal treaties. The Tulalips, through previous treaties, have been guaranteed fishing rights in their traditional fishing grounds, which extend south to Vashon Island, north to the Canadian border and west into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"Salmon are a property right to the tribes," Williams said, which tribal members kept in exchange for giving land to the federal government.

The federal government, in return, "is supposed to oversee the tribes’ resources and maximize those resources," Williams said.

Gorman put the difference of opinion between the Tulalips and the Fisheries Service simply: "The tribes think we aren’t doing enough (to protect salmon), and we think we’re doing enough."

Hatch, who’s been making a living fishing since he was 15, is one of those who thinks Fisheries Service isn’t doing enough.

"They still aren’t coming back," Hatch said of the salmon. "Something’s happening. It has to be (habitat) upriver.

"We used to have 60 fishing boats, and now we have 12," Hatch said. "Nobody can survive on fishing anymore.

He added that he had to start catching crab to get by.

"It’s a hard thing, because nobody wants to bite the bullet" and take responsibility for saving the salmon, Hatch said.

"I’ve had to bite the bullet. The tribes have had to bite the bullet," he said. "Everyone has to help."

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