CAN SAVING SALMON be as simple as filling in a circle on next November's ballot? Sports fishers collecting signatures for an initiative to ban non-Indian commercial fishing nets in Washington think so. The commercial fishing industry is "deadly efficient," they say, and have "netted [fish stocks] to near total collapse."
Initiative 696, the Ban All Nets Initiative, marks the second time around for sports anglers trying to push commercial fishing nets out of state waters. In 1995, recreational fishers offered up the Save Our Sealife Initiative, which was defeated by a wide margin. 1995's initiative featured a confusing set of rules governing which nets were legal and which weren't. That confusion led voters to reject SOS, says BAN spokesman Tony Snow. So this time around, the accent is on simplicity: Ban them all.
And with good reason, according to proponents. Nets are indiscriminate killers that harm bottom habitat and catch everything in their wakes. BAN's Web site proclaims that "the commercial net fishery has wiped out salmon stocks and wreaked havoc with herring, pollock, lingcod, sablefish, rockfish, and whiting!"
Although endangered salmon aren't targeted by commercial fishers (chinook and coho net fisheries are open only a few days each year, and those primarily net hatchery fish), BAN says commercial nets trap the endangered fish along with targeted populations. Commercial fishers in the San Juans "catch anywhere from 35,000 to 70,000 chinook while they are supposedly fishing sockeye," says Tony Snow. "Thirty-five thousand is more than sports fishing takes for the entire state."
According to those figures, eliminating the chinook by-catch from nets could more than double the number of wild chinook returning to spawn in Puget Sound rivers. The complete net ban would also benefit non-salmon stocks as well, say BAN proponents. In states like California and Louisiana, where voters instituted net bans, Snow says, fisheries have begun to recover.
Commercial fishers, tribes, some fisheries scientists, and environmentalists disagree with BAN's numbers and reasoning. "Fisheries and net fishers are not the problem [for salmon]," argues Tony Meyer, spokesman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries commission. "The problem is loss of suitable habitat."
While harvest is one of the so-called four H's of salmon decline—the others are hydropower dams, habitat destruction, and hatcheries—it's by far the least damaging of the four. On the Columbia and Snake rivers, eight hydropower dams cause at least 80 percent of human-inflicted salmon declines. In Puget Sound drainages, habitat destruction accounts for the lion's share, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency handling Endangered Species Act listings for Northwest salmon. Other factors—pollution and climate change, for example—contribute to declines in other commercially fished species. "There are over 200 species of fish in Puget Sound and literally every single one has plummeted," says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "Most of them have not been fished heavily in that period, if at all. This is independent of fishing pressures."
Moreover, BAN proponents are exaggerating the magnitude of the net salmon by-catch, says Steve Mathews, a retired University of Washington fisheries professor. Chinook by-catch for the San Juan sockeye fishery last year totaled "less than 1 percent" of the catch, he says. State Fish and Wildlife records show that for 1997, 713 chinook were netted in a total catch of more than 188,000 sockeye. Globally and regionally, populations of net-caught salmon like sockeye, chums, and pinks have increased, says Mathews. It's the species caught by hook and line that have decreased. Nets "can't be shown to be a damaging element," he adds, pointing out that the initiative ignores the impact of sports fishing, which Mathews believes to be at least equivalent to the impact of nets.
Environmental groups fear that BAN will deflect attention from the major causes of salmon declines, says Lisa McShane, salmon campaign coordinator for the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. Those same concerns led most green groups to oppose the 1995 Save Our Sealife Initiative, which they said was a ruse by hydropower interests to deflect attention from salmon-killing dams by shifting attention to commercial fishing. The Columbia River Alliance, a consortium of irrigators and aluminum companies, played a signature role in planning and funding the earlier initiative. However, Tony Snow says that BAN is committed to dealing with other factors causing salmon declines, and he sounds a conciliatory tone toward green groups, saying, "We'd love to have their support." Still, it seems inevitable that environmental groups will oppose the initiative. BAN president Tom Nelson conceded as much, suggesting that conservation groups like Save Our Wild Salmon, Sierra Club, and Audubon Society are "controlled by commercial fishers." To which Tim Stearns, with Save Our Wild Salmon, replies that the group's work with commercial fishers arises from a desire to develop workable salmon solutions. Impacts from nets can be managed with the help of commercial fishers, he says, rather than resorting to BAN's "nuclear bomb method of dealing with the problem."
NONETHELESS, INITIATIVE proponents say banning commercial nets is best, and the only meaningful action voters can take on behalf of salmon. Political will simply is not strong enough to deal with dams, logging, development, and agriculture. "Overharvest by nets," however, "citizens can control." But if nets are the only factor that citizens rein in, says Steve Mathews, salmon will continue to decline. "Very few of the problems will go away by eliminating nets," he says, and "you end up with one less industry to fight for cleaner waters and habitat."
Commercial fishers have invested a great deal of energy defending fish. The Puget Sound Gillnetters Association filed the original petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Puget Sound chinook listed as an endangered species. Gillnetter Anne Mossness says that she and her colleagues spend countless unpaid hours advocating for wild salmon restoration; fighting the proposed net ban, she adds, will only distract them from more important work. She also laments that sports fishers are wrestling again with commercial fishers over who gets what. "No one's going to come out on top on this," she says. "We've all got to work together" to save wild salmon. That is clearly another salmon solution that's not as simple as it sounds.