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Enforce the Endangered Species Act

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Seattle P-I, May 19, 2005; The Post-Intelligencer's recent series on how exemptions to the Endangered Species Act are driving many species to extinction illuminates the empty shell of promises by the federal government to protect these resources.

Seattle P-I

May 19, 2005

OPINION

By MICHAEL GRAYUM
GUEST COLUMNIST

The Post-Intelligencer's recent series on how exemptions to the Endangered Species Act are driving many species to extinction illuminates the empty shell of promises by the federal government to protect these resources.

Political compromises with our natural resources got us into this mess. They drove healthy fish, wildlife and plant species into decline. The ESA was supposed to remove those politics and end those compromises, but it hasn't. They are still there, and they are still driving the process.

Compromises aside, the problem is compounded by the federal government's refusal to enforce the ESA. Without enforcement, there is no law.

Take, for example, the preventable death of more than 6,000 young Chinook -- protected as threatened under the ESA -- two years ago on the White River. In addition to the Chinook, more than 15,000 coho, 500 chum and thousands of other fish were killed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rapidly lowered the river by 85 percent -- and left it that way for more than seven hours -- to enable repairs to a Puget Sound Energy dam.

To date, there has been no action on the fish kill by the federal government.

Six thousand dead juvenile chinook is significant when you consider that just 800 returned to the river the year before, says Russ Ladley, environmental program manager for the Puyallup Tribe. "What is the point of trying to protect and recover endangered Chinook salmon if thousands can be killed without penalty or due recourse?" he asks.

The treaty tribes are actively engaged in developing a wild salmon recovery plan through the Shared Salmon Strategy for Puget Sound. This effort of tribal, state, local and federal governments, business, environmental organizations and watershed planning groups is nearing completion and offers the best chance for recovering wild Puget Sound chinook. This effort will fail, however, if the federal government does not begin enforcing the ESA.

While ESA exemptions enable the treaty tribal salmon co-managers to conduct a limited number of fisheries, the tribes have paid a high price for these exemptions, and continue to pay that price every day.

These exemptions are necessary because of the federal government's refusal to effectively address the ongoing, unchecked loss and degradation of salmon spawning and rearing habitat, the two most significant factors contributing to the decline of wild salmon in Western Washington.

Treaty tribal harvest has been voluntarily cut by 80 percent over the past two decades to protect wild salmon, and those fisheries continue to be constrained further every year.

Meanwhile, the biggest contributors to the problem pay little or nothing for their actions and get away with it.

Wild salmon recovery begins and ends with good salmon habitat. While harvest and hatchery impacts to wild salmon operate under a blanket of tribal, state and federal governmental oversight, habitat receives almost none. That's because when you start talking about protecting salmon habitat, the real politics kick in, with political compromises right behind.

We could stop all fishing today and yet produce no benefit to a number of weak wild salmon stocks. Putting more salmon into poor habitat does not result in more fish. It's like dumping 500 pan-sized trout into a 25-gallon aquarium filled with dirty water and expecting them to thrive. Even with pure water and adequate food, the aquarium -- the habitat for those fish -- could only support a few. It's the same in nature.

Only when we make the same effort to protect and restore salmon habitat that we have in reducing harvest and the effects of hatcheries will we begin to achieve wild salmon recovery.

Michael Grayum is executive director of the NW Indian Fisheries Commission.