Suit challenges fishing season cut A California-based legal foundation filed a lawsuit in Eugene Friday on behalf of two Oregon fishermen’s associations , charging that the federal government broke the law when it cut the commercial fishing season for chinook salmon in half.
The Pacific Legal Foundation alleged that the National Marine Fisheries Service wrongly distinguished between naturally spawning and hatchery chinook salmon and failed to consider the “severe economic and safety impacts” of a shortened trolling season on coastal fishing communities.
A spokesman for the state’s largest advocacy group for fishermen criticized the lawsuit, however, saying the shortened season is necessary to protect the struggling Klamath chinook, which intermingle “all up and down the coast.”
Glen Spain, who is Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, also noted that the foundation that filed the suit on Friday has previously represented farmers vying with fishing interests for Klamath Basin water rights.
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service, said that he has not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on specific details, but that the limits were set in accordance with the federal Endangered Species Act. Gorman said the agency has to determine the strength of wild salmon runs – not hatchery fish – then set fishing limits that protect that wild fish population from dipping below certain levels.
Foundation attorney Russell Brooks outlined his case outside the downtown Eugene Federal Courthouse, backed by 35 to 40 fishermen and their families, some holding signs reading “Save Our Jobs.” He said he plans to file a a motion for injunctive relief next week.
“We are certainly hoping for a ruling within a couple of weeks, so we can get the fishermen back out on the water,” said Brooks.
The shortened season “will completely devastate our industry,” said J. D. Evanow, a Charleston commercial fisherman who attended the Friday event as vice president of the Oregon Trollers Association. “But it also affects tourism, motels, ice docks, fuel docks, tackle shops – basically every job on the coast is affected.”
The federal ruling was particularly infuriating, he added, because the government’s own numbers suggest a “record or near record” number of salmon in the ocean this year.
“And yet they’re shutting us down because of one bad system – the Klamath system,” he said.
The early termination of this year’s fishing season was tied to last fall’s run of 4-year-old Chinook salmon in the Klamath River, where low and warm water levels have killed hundreds of thousands of juvenile fish in recent years.
A debate rages about how much water the federal government allows irrigators to draw from the river.
Brooks said the federal government was needlessly endangering fishermen’s livelihoods at a time when the ocean is “teeming with salmon.”
“A way of life revered in American culture is under attack,” he said. “These fishermen are the best stewards of this resource, and now big government is telling them they don’t know how to manage the fish that their future depends on.”
Spain said that his group is sympathetic to the economic distress the fishing communities are feeling but added, “We feel the lawsuit is a distraction because the only real solution is to put more water in the Klamath River so more fish survive. It is fundamentally a biological problem, not a legal one. Without more water in the river, the fish will never return.”
His group represents 15 port associations and fishing vessel owner groups totaling about 1,500 fishing operations.
He noted that Pacific Legal Foundation has worked to overturn court-ordered efforts to provide more water for struggling Klamath Chinook stocks when it represented the Klamath Water Users Association in pursuing irrigation rights for farmers.
Indeed, one of the plaintiffs in the case filed Friday is James Moore, a former executive director of that water users group and a third-generation Klamath basin farmer. In his claim, Moore said he was forced out of farming after 40 years when he could not irrigate his crops during a 2001 drought and moved to Bandon to become a commercial chinook fisherman.
Spain said he believes that the fishermen who have signed on to the lawsuit did so because “they’re desperate and it offers some hope for relief.”
But, he said, a short-term fix that sacrifices the recovery of Klamath Chinook poses long-term dangers. Instead, Spain said, fishermen should push for federal disaster assistance and restoration of adequate water to revive Klamath Chinook runs.
Brooks said Spain is out of touch with “the fisherman out on the water.”
“The PCFFA doesn’t really have fishermen’s interests at heart,” he said. “What they’re really looking at is water, and shutting down the farmers in the Klamath Basin. They’ve become a front group for environmental radicals. They claim to represent fishermen, but the fishermen did not go to them when they needed help, they went to us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report
By Karen McCowan