Overfishing, poaching among snags for Northwest salmon industry

Commercial salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest these days are finding their work anything but routine. Declining numbers of fish, state and federal efforts to conserve them, plus legal requirements stemming from Indian fishing rights have added a few bizarre twists to this traditional profession.

In 1974, when a federal court ruled that Indian fishermen had the legal right to 50 percent of the catch, salmon were at the center of a heated controversy. Things are much quieter now, but the legacy of that earlier battle over fishing rights is still evident.

On a number of nights this month, so many commercial fishermen cast their nets into Puget Sound north of Seattle that they formed a virtual barricade, forcing seagoing ships headed for the port to slow down, stop, or even back up to try to maneuver around them. It was ''as bad as we've ever seen it. There was no place to go with the ships,'' reported the president of the Port Angeles Pilots.

For a number of years, keeping shipping lanes clear during the brief periods when non-Indians are permitted to fish in the Sound has been a major problem. Since 1974 ''there have been more fishermen than are needed to harvest the surplus fish,'' explains Frank Haw of the Washington Department of Fisheries. While the number of fishermen declined slightly in the last few years, the traffic problem has been accentuated because the state has closed off large areas of the Sound as part of its salmon conservation efforts, concentrating the fishermen in other areas.

In the waning days of the Carter administration, Congress passed a bill authorizing more than a $100 million to develop a comprehensive salmon management plan, to build more hatcheries to help increase the salmon runs, and to buy out the gear and licenses of surplus salmon fishermen. But Congress, until recently, never appropriated any money for the program. One million dollars has just been OKed, but only for planning purposes.

As government restrictions on salmon fishing have tightened and the price of this gourmet delicacy has climbed, the temptation to poach has grown. The worst problems were right after the 1974 ruling, when ''protest fishing'' was common.

Now ''people are beginning to accept the laws,'' says Mr. Haw. Fishermen are not as tolerant of poachers within their own ranks as they once were. And state government and the Indian tribes are coordinating their enforcement activities better, he adds.

An example of this cooperation is an operation, dubbed ''Fishscam,'' which recently netted dozens of people in a huge salmon poaching ring on the Columbia River. Prosecutors in the case say that charges of catching fish out of season, taking amounts far in excess of the limits allowed by Indian ceremonial fishing permits, and purchasing and selling fish caught illegally will be issued against as many as 90 people.

These charges stem from a 14-month investigation and involve both Indians and non-Indians. It was sparked in part by what fisheries people have called the ''missing fish phenomenon.'' Counts of fish crossing the various dams on the Columbia consistently indicated that large numbers of salmon were disappearing.

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