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Thursday, November 2, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Initiative 640: Vote `No' On Musical-Chairs Fishery

Special To The Times

INITIATIVE 640 would "save our sealife" only in rhetoric - not in reality. 640 talks the talk of fish conservation, but it walks the walk of fish allocation - who catches which fish. In an era of salmon and steelhead runs declining toward extinctions, conservationists refuse to fight over who gets to catch the last fish.

Attacking the commercial fishing industry for the loss of salmon just blames the victims. Conservationists reject the notion that, in the face of declining salmon runs, the Northwest should conduct a tragic game of musical chairs in which the odd harvester out - commercial, recreational, or tribal - goes into extinction with the fish.

Initiative 640 would divide our society by playing just such a game of fishing musical chairs, and would plunge our state into a bitter "lose-lose" result - devastating the commercial fishing industry, which generates $250 million annually and maintains 20,000 jobs, and at the same time, failing to save the salmon, much less restore the fish to their former abundance.

Various I-640 proponents have expressed surprise and outrage that environmentalists generally have remained neutral on, or have come out in opposition to, this so-called "Save Our Sealife" initiative. They cite scary figures for over-harvesting and for "by-catch" of other fish runs and water birds, expecting knee-jerk support from the environmental community.

If commercial fishing is responsible for salmon declines as

I-640 supporters claim, then why are steelhead vanishing in the Northwest, too? By law going exclusively to sport anglers and tribes, steelhead have no commercial harvest and virtually no by-catch. In point of fact, the root causes of fish declines and extinctions are dams, logging, paving, pollution, out-of-control hatcheries, and a host of other human-inflicted ills that destroy the ability of these fish to spawn and migrate successfully in our streams.

Even if we agreed lock-stock-and-barrel with the initiative's supporters about the problem - which we do not - conservationists would still oppose I-640 as the solution. The proposed law is written in such a mangled way that it could not and would not reform any of these alleged abuses on Washington state waters. If approved by the voters on Tuesday, Initiative 640 will only spawn masses of new bureaucracy and protracted litigation.

Moreover, I-640 backers have courted and received major contributions from the Columbia River Alliance - a coalition of electric utilities, aluminum companies, inland ports and other industrial river-users - which has staunchly fought environmentalists' efforts to save endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. Meanwhile, commercial fishing groups have come out strongly and publicly in support of the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, spawning habitat restoration, reform of hydroelectric operations, and other key environmental protections.

Here is what's wrong with this initiative:

-- I-640 is fatally complicated and bureaucratic. For example, I-640 locks the governor and the state into one and only one rigid position on re-negotiation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada. Negotiation of international treaties by state referendum ballot makes no sense.

-- I-640 would wreck the state's commercial fishing industry. While its proponents claim that the initiative seeks only to protect fish from abusive harvest practices, I-640 would actually devastate commercial fishing in Washington state - an industry that generates $250 million annually and maintains 20,000 jobs directly in our economy. Functionally, I-640 would ban the harvest of chinook and coho salmon by commercial operators so that only recreational anglers can catch these fish.

-- I-640 will not save salmon and steelhead. The initiative says absolutely nothing, and does absolutely nothing, about the root causes of fish declines and extinctions: destruction of spawning habitat due to logging and urbanization, migration blockages by hydroelectric dams, and unsound hatchery practices. The initiative also does absolutely nothing about fishing practices to the south in Oregon and California, or up north in Alaska and Canada.

Not that long ago, the great runs of Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead provided plenty for all - commercial harvesters, sport anglers, and American Indian tribes - and the natural ecosystems were made healthy and vibrant by the annual return of these magnificent fish. Today, humankind have destroyed the abundance of yesteryear, and threaten to wipe out the salmon altogether.

As a society, we must band together to heal spawning habitat, clean up the water, and fix the dams so that Northwest streams once again run with bountiful salmon for everyone.

The authors are Lorri Bodi, Northwest regional co-director, American Rivers; Shawn Cantrell, associate Northwest representative, Friends of the Earth; Mitch Friedman, executive director, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance; Kathy Fletcher, executive director, People for Puget Sound; Jim Baker, Northwest salmon campaign coordinator, Sierra Club; Sherilyn Wells, co-president, Washington Environmental Council.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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