The Oregon State Legislature is in Session; It’s Like a Fish Out of Water

Oregon Senate Chamber

Actually, I think the Oregon State Legislature knows exactly what it is doing, but yes, fish are literally out of water. Senate Bill 1584 just passed out of committee on Thursday, giving certain Oregon cities the right to draw water from rivers, such as the Kilchis, for municipal needs. Sure, people need water, and relatively speaking, we consume a small fraction of what other industries do. But bypassing existing fish review and water conservation requirements is a bad idea, especially when a billion dollar-a-year sport and commercial fishing industry relies heavily on wild salmon.

It hasn’t been a friendly session for fish in Salem this year; most fish conservation groups are grateful that the session only lasts for 35 days. It doesn’t seem to matter what side of the aisle you roam, attacks are coming from one side and ill-defended by the other. I think it’s high time that we held electeds accountable for how they vote for fish.

And how about Senate Bill 1517? Here’s one that mandates that county governments have to approve a wetlands restoration project (hugely beneficial to salmonids) and ensure the conversion of farm land to wetlands won’t hurt nearby agricultural operations, before the project can go forward. To top off the comedy, the bill has been reduced to just a pilot project in my home county of Tillamook. Yes, that’s home to Tillamook Cheese (I eat my fair share, not to mention the ice cream) and a Tillamook County Creamery Association policy that states there will be “no net loss of agricultural lands.” How’s that going to work for the most salmon-rich county in Oregon? Just to add insult to injury, Tillamook County is likely one of the strongest proponents of private property rights (I’m actually OK with that), but the Creamery Association opposed restoration projects on private lands just because of its no net loss policy. What a great place to conduct a “pilot project,” huh?

And I thought Congress was bad……

From a statewide perspective, fish politics just don’t rank high enough to get anyone in trouble, or place any one legislator on a pedestal. Most would agree (I’m not one of them), that there are other, higher priorities than fish in state and federal politics. It’s precisely why wild salmon and steelhead are destined for departure as predicted by the Salmon 2100 team. To quote a Salmon 2100 project leader, “Most Project participants conclude that major, sometimes wholesale modification of core societal values and priorities will have to occur if significant, sustainable populations of wild salmon are to be present in the region through 2100.”

Now that we’re done throwing the Oregon State Legislature under the bus, let’s look to state policy for fish. I thought things were going relatively well until I heard how close we were to prosecuting a commercial fishery for roe-laden herring in our own Yaquina Bay. I know these commercial fisheries exist up and down the Pacific Coast, and we even have a history of them in Yaquina Bay until about a dozen years ago.

The Pacific herring run faded for quite some time, after a fairly robust sport and commercial fishery for I don’t know how long. Low population abundance in the last decade has not allowed a commercial seine fishery for all this time, but the population has remarkably rebounded for the last two years.

Of course I’ve made my living for the last 20 years on abundant fish runs, ones deemed abundant, anyway, by our collective fish and wildlife agencies. I kind of have to be OK with that since we continue to conduct fisheries based on, technically, an over-abundance of fish that allow for a directed fishery after meeting escapement goals. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad way to conduct a sport or commercial fishery, but if sportanglers were once again allowed access to the spawning grounds of wild salmon or steelhead, everyone (but poachers) would FLIP OUT! Does it really make sense, in an environment where we just crashed the sardine population, the central sub-population of anchovies are in trouble and we haven’t done a stock assessment on the northern population of anchovies since 1995, to actually prosecute a fishery on a spawning population of herring? I’m thinking not.

For those of us who have heard the phrase that salmon are the “victim of a thousand cuts,” it’s pretty clear, based on state and federal policy, that the bleeding has not yet stopped. Until our policy-makers (and I don’t care what party they come from) make salmon and ecosystems a higher priority, I’m not sure things will be improving for salmon anytime in the near future.

That change really has to come from us though, the authentic stakeholders. If we don’t start calling out our local and federal electeds for bad behavior for a resource unilaterally desired by all our citizens, when will it actually change? Maybe it’s not our children that need the report cards any longer; they seem to be the ones that actually care for the environment.

Photo: Oregon Senate Chamber, via Wikipedia

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Association of NW Steelheaders.

2 comments on “The Oregon State Legislature is in Session; It’s Like a Fish Out of Water

  1. Great article Bob! Our political elite in Salem (as in Washington DC) had better start listening to their constituents instead of wealthy special interests or things could change rapidly. Just ask the Republican Leadership.

  2. Right to the point, well done Bob. Folks, lets get off the couch and say something in support. It’s high time, hell it’s almost passed time. Let’s get on board!

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