Tribal officials explain dislike of fin-clipping salmon

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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It’s no secret that the Columbia River treaty tribes do not like the clipping of salmon and steelhead adipose fins in state and federal hatcheries and the ensuing fishing seasons by non-Indians for only hatchery stocks.

Two tribal officials explained why at a conference last week in Portland on salmon restoration in the Columbia River basin.

First, a bit of background.

The adipose fins get clipped when the fish are little at the hatcheries. When they come back as adults, non-Indians catch and keep hatchery-origin salmon and steelhead and release the wild fish.

Fin clipping goes by the buzzwords of “mass marking,’’ while the keeping only hatchery fish is called a “mark-selective fishery.’’

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, non-Indians are allowed to kill only a small number of wild fish. In the case of the current spring chinook season, the non-Indian allowable kill of wild salmon is 1.9 percent of the run.

By requiring release of wild fish, state managers can leverage that 1.9 percent mortality allowance into the harvest of thousands of hatchery salmon.

Mike Matylewich, manager of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Fish Management Department, told the conference there are a plethora of uncertainties associated with wild-fish release.

Like how many of the wild fish die following release?

“It’s a very difficult parameter to measure,’’ Matylewich said. “The literature has a variation from as low as 2 percent to a high of 50 percent, depending on where the fisheries occur, what the species is, what type of gear.’’

The biologists assume a “reasonable’’ mortality rate for released fish and assume it is constant during the duration of the fishing period, but both are uncertain, he said.

Mass marking also is not cheap.

“The equipment is expensive,’’ Matylewich said. “A trailer to automate mass marking at a hatchery costs somewhere around $1 million. There’s also sampling costs.’’

Unless additional money is provided to monitor mark-selective fishing, the cost comes from resources which could be used elsewhere, such as habitat restoration, he said.

Gauntlet effect

With more and more mark-selective fisheries, wild salmon and steelhead have to run a gauntlet to get back to their spawning grounds, he said.

“So you think of the gauntlet pretty much as a sieve, taking out hatchery fish and leaving unmarked fish. It can have major changes in the mark rate as we go from fishery to fishery.’’

Matylewich argues that mark-selective fisheries really do not promote conservation.

Summer steelhead in the Columbia River have been fin-clipped since the early 1980s, yet the percentage of wild fish in the annual return has not changed much, he said.

“Mark-selective fisheries and mass marking alone is a very simple solution to a very complex problem,’’ Matylewich said. “We need to address the entire life cycle.’’

Kathryn Brigham, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said the tribal vision is to rebuild all the wild fish stocks in the Columbia Basin.

Mark-selective fisheries allow the state and federal governments to allow salmon and steelhead harvests without meeting the objectives of the Endangered Species Act, she said.

The goal is “putting the fish back where they belong,’’ Brigham said.

“Our goal is we can all go fish, we can all catch our fish and we can all keep it and get the ESA off our back,’’ she said.

Youth connection

Culturally, the tribes have more in common with non-Indian commercial fishermen than sportsmen.

During the past three decades at Columbia River Compact meetings, tribal officials occasionally have made reference that “playing with your food’’ is not an Indian value.

Stuart Ellis, a fishery scientist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the tribes have the same concerns as non-Indians about young people not being as involved in natural resource management.

“We’ve got some real issues with making sure our young people — both Indian people and non-Indian people — are able to become fishermen and maintain fisheries,’’ Ellis said.

“While I might get in a little trouble with my some of my employers who are not big fans of sport fishing, I’d argue maintaining viable sport fisheries also is an important part.’’

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing and other outdoor issues for The Columbian. He can be reached at al.thomas@columbian.com or by calling 360-735-4555.