An appropriations bill providing funds for the Commerce, Justice and State departments may be dangerous to the health of salmon.
Tucked away in the bill is a measure that would waive endangered species protection for salmon that migrate into Alaskan waters from the lower 48 states. President Clinton vetoed the bill Monday, though largely for reasons unrelated to the fish, but a White House spokesman said the administration is trying to get the salmon rider eliminated from the final measure.
The rider, which Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) attached to the spending bill, would ensure salmon fishing for Alaskans but could have a negative impact on the dwindling stocks of salmon in Oregon and Washington. It could also threaten the hard-fought 1999 Pacific Salmon Treaty Agreement with Canada.
The bill contains only $50 million of the $160 million the administration requested for Northwest salmon restoration and implementation of the agreement. The treaty, a revision of a 1985 salmon pact, calls on both countries to pay for salmon restoration programs and set fishing levels on each side of the border.
The agreement, approved in June, would reduce the fishing limits if salmon populations declined or are subject to Endangered Species Act protections. Alaska officials are concerned that the administration will issue a jeopardy finding under the Endangered Species Act this year, which will trigger the protections.
Stevens's rider and the spending cuts could jeopardize the treaty and encourage Canada to ignore the endangered species protections and fishing quotas, say the governors of Oregon and Washington, tribal leaders, representatives of regional fishermen and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The bill would provide $50 million for salmon programs, of which $18 million would go to Washington state, $14 million to Alaska, $7 million each to Oregon and California, and $4 million to Pacific Northwest Indian tribes.
"We're looking at an unworkable situation if these are the final numbers," said Ric Ilgenfritz, director of external relations for the regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Govs. John Kitzhaber (D-Ore.) and Gary Locke (D-Wash.) oppose any legislation that would exempt the salmon treaty from Endangered Species Act requirements. "It is disconcerting that the treaty itself could fail in a last-minute attempt by Congress to alter the treaty," said Bill Wyatt, Kitzhaber's chief of staff.
Twenty-six populations of Pacific salmon are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The majority come from Washington state and the Columbia River Basin and migrate north into Alaskan waters. If Alaskan fishermen are allowed to catch threatened fish, the Canadians may insist on doing likewise, putting increased pressure on the dwindling Oregon and Washington stocks.
While Canada has no Endangered Species Act, as signatory to the treaty, it has agreed to accommodate these protections. The Stevens rider would waive this protection once the fish arrive in Alaskan waters.
"The U.S. is required under the treaty to make its best efforts to restore salmon habitat," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, "and we can't do that without funds."
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) said the issue is that the federal government is not doing enough in Oregon and Washington to deal with hydroelectric dams and other threats to rivers that are reducing salmon runs.
"There is great political and economic pressure to do nothing with the rivers and shift the political problem onto the backs of the salmon harvesters," Knowles wrote to Kitzhaber and Locke last week. Stevens has said that Alaska fishermen have already suffered from salmon harvesting limits.
But the administration opposes the funding cuts as well as the rider. "Funding has not been adequate either for the treaty or for conservation and restoration," said White House spokesman Barry Toiv.