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Originally published May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 23, 2008 at 2:09 AM

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U.S.-Canadian treaty could bring chinook home to spawn

More Washington chinook would be coming home to spawn under proposed changes to a U.S.-Canadian salmon treaty announced Thursday. The move, if approved...

Seattle Times environment reporter

More Washington chinook would be coming home to spawn under proposed changes to a U.S.-Canadian salmon treaty announced Thursday.

The move, if approved by the two governments, could give a boost to the flagging fortunes of chinook runs in Puget Sound and the Columbia River, now protected under the Endangered Species Act.

But it will come at a price to the fishing industries in Canada and Alaska, which will have to forgo catching as many as 100,000 of the prized fish every year so they can reach their home rivers.

Despite those cuts, described as painful by Alaskan and Canadian representatives, there appears to be broad governmental support for changes to a treaty that, in the past, has triggered bitter cross-border feuds.

"My hat goes off to our Canadian colleagues who saw this, as we did, as an opportunity to take a concerted effort forward on conservation," said Gov. Christine Gregoire.

The changes, hammered out over a year and a half by U.S. and Canadian representatives on the Pacific Salmon Commission, would mean a 15 percent cut in chinook caught in southeast Alaska compared to what's allowed today, and a 30 percent cut off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

That's expected to translate into more fish returning to Washington, because many of those chinook, particularly the ones off Vancouver Island, spawn in Puget Sound rivers and the Columbia River.

"With this agreement, we make a substantial down payment in our efforts to return Washington's weak, wild chinook-salmon populations back to sustainable levels," said Jeff Koenings, director of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a lead U.S. negotiator.

The new terms under the treaty still must be reviewed by the two national governments, and would need their approval. Congress wouldn't need to ratify the changes, because they don't amend the actual treaty. But the deal hinges on millions in funding from Congress.

Split opinions

The proposed changes won endorsements from Northwest tribes with fishing rights, and Washington commercial fishermen with a stake in the fate of chinook runs.

Commercial fishermen here are coping with salmon fisheries that are closed off much of the Oregon and California coasts, and pared back in Washington.

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With fewer chinook caught to the north "we might be able to maintain a skeleton fishery down here while the wild [chinook] stocks are recovering," said Doug Fricke, president of the Washington Trollers Association. Troll fishing, the most common technique for commercial chinook fishing, relies on long fishing lines with multiple hooks pulled behind a boat.

But farther north, fishermen were much less enthusiastic.

Dale Kelley, of the Alaska Trollers Association, said the cuts in Alaskan fishing were just a bargaining chip, traded so the Canadians would agree to less fishing off Vancouver Island.

But the real source of the salmon's plight, she said, lies with habitat destruction in places such as Puget Sound.

"The people that do not want to gin up political will to deal with that problem just got a free pass," she said.

In Canada, negotiator Gerry Kristianson, who sits on the Pacific Salmon Commission and represented sport-fishing interests, said he supported the deal partly because the U.S. was willing to cut Alaskan fishing levels in return for the Canadian cuts.

But, he said, "it obviously imposes a significant amount of pain on the west cost of Vancouver Island."

The pain could be eased by a $30 million payment the U.S. would make to Canada under the new arrangement.

Meanwhile, a lead attorney for fish-conservation groups questioned the deal's benefits. While it's good to reduce chinook fishing off Vancouver Island, it's not clear there's scientific evidence that a 30 percent reduction is the right one, said Svend Brandt-Erichsen.

Brandt-Erichsen, a Seattle attorney, represents conservation groups that sued over the existing version of the Pacific Salmon Treaty. They charged that as many as 88 percent of the chinook caught off Vancouver Island's west coast came from U.S. rivers.

So far they have lost those suits, but several are on appeal.

A shared resource

Still, the deal is enjoying support from government officials in Canada, Washington and even Alaska.

"I can assure you that people in Alaska are not thrilled with the way that it came out. But the fact that we acquiesced I think shows the way we are willing to act as partners in this shared resource," said Dave Bedford, of the Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, who represented the state in the negotiations.

That's a stark contrast to the past, when treaty talks triggered fiery rhetoric, protests and diplomatic saber rattling between the U.S. and Canada.

At the heart of the problem are salmon that defy political boundaries, spawning in one country's rivers, then migrating into ocean controlled by another.

Canadians in the past have complained that Alaskan fishermen catch too many fish bound for Canadian rivers, while U.S. officials objected that Canadian fishermen haul in too many salmon bound for U.S. waters.

In the 1990s, the last time the treaty was renegotiated, tempers grew so hot that Canadian fishermen blockaded an Alaska ferry terminal for days, and Canadian authorities seized several U.S. fishing boats in Canadian waters.

Since then, however, pressure to deal with dwindling chinook runs has mounted. In 1999, Puget Sound chinook were listed under the Endangered Species Act, joining Columbia River chinook that continue to struggle. Canadians also have faced problems with some salmon runs.

That growing recognition of the common threat to salmon helped drive the negotiations, Koenings said.

It was also helpful that the major sticking point from the last round — the divvying up of sockeye salmon — was left to a separate set of negotiations. The previous sockeye deal is set to expire in two years.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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