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Pacific Northwest Salmon Conservation Legislation

Page history last edited by salmonpolicy 10 years, 2 months ago


Problem and Background


            Salmon are an indispensable natural resource for the Pacific Northwest region.  Not only do they provide important ecological services – such as feeding grizzly bears, bald eagles, orcas, and other threatened species; linking oceanic, estuarial, and freshwater ecosystems; and sustaining inland forests with marine nutrients – they also play key roles in Native American culture, and perhaps most importantly in sustaining Northwest coastal livelihoods and fishery economies.

            However, as a result of over-fishing, damming, and other habitat loss, 406 of the nearly 1400 original populations of Northwest salmon runs have gone extinct.  Of the 977 remaining, a third are already listed as endangered or threatened.  The rest are highly unstable and growing weaker every year.  This massive loss of resources has dealt a severe blow to the Northwest economy, putting thousands out of work and shutting down whole fisheries for entire seasons in recent years.  If nothing is done to stop the rapid population decline, this trend will undoubtedly continue until there are no salmon left at all.


Existing Legislation


            Though legislation aimed at protecting dwindling salmon populations does exist, current policy is disjointed.   Most of the legal protections afforded to salmon populations within the Pacific Northwest region of the United States fall under the Endangered Species Act.   As of May 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration list five salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest and California as Endangered, four populations as Threatened or Proposed Threatened, and one as Under Review.   Species listed as Endangered require the development and implementation of conservation plans which include the protective measures of maintaining critical habitats, stopping direct take, and studying issues like the genetic and demographic variability of small populations.  

The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, a revision of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, protects salmon populations through regulations to prevent overfishing.   This act is complemented by the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which both attempt to protect fish and wildlife in coastal and marine habitats.   Participation in the Coastal Zone Management Act by states and tribes is voluntary.   The act authorizes the distribution of federal financial assistance to territories, tribes or states for coastal management programs as an incentive for participation.   The National Marine Sanctuaries Act gives the Secretary of Commerce authority to create protected marine areas for reasons including conservation, ecological and scientific purposes.   Additionally, the Clean Water Act provides protection for salmon habitats through Chapter 26, which addresses pollution prevention and control.


Policy Option A: Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act


            The first policy option is to pass Senate Bill 817, the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act, which establishes a public-private partnership that works across political and land ownership boundaries to identify and conserve salmon strongholds in the Pacific Northwest. 

First introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State on April 2, 2009, the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act acknowledges the highly migratory nature of salmon and the need for greater coordination between and among public and private entities to establish salmon strongholds throughout their habitat.   The purposes of the act are threefold:


o      To expand federal support and resources for the protection and restoration of salmon strongholds

o      To enhance the economic benefits of fishing and/or healthy salmon habitats, which includes climate change mitigation and adaptation, flood protection, recreation, carbon sequestration, and water quantity and quality

o      To complement and add to existing salmon recovery efforts through the use of science to sustain centers of salmon abundance


In order to accomplish these goals, the act establishes the Salmon Stronghold Partnership Board to manage the Salmon Stronghold Partnership.   The Board must include representatives of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.   Additionally, the board will include representatives from the natural resources staff of the office of the Governor for the states of Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, between three and five representatives from Indian tribes, a representative from each of the 3 non-governmental organizations with salmon conservation, and representatives of other entities with significant resources dedicated to protecting salmon ecosystems.

      The Salmon Stronghold Watershed Grants and Technical Assistance Program, established by this act, provides financial and practical support to salmon stronghold protection and restoration activities.   This includes funding the entities represented on the Board, encouraging cooperation among Board members, local authorities and private entities, and carrying out existing conservation programs.



o      Supports and accelerates the implementation of recovery plans for salmon populations listed under the Endangered Species Act;

o      Emphasizes and attempts to maintain the economic benefits of salmon habitats, including fishing and flood protection;

o      Establishes open lines of communication between organizations that enforce pre-existing conservation legislation protecting salmon, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service;

o      Authorizes the sharing of related information between North Pacific countries;

o      Requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to carry out specific information and assessment functions;

o      Inter-state and international communication and collaboration in conservation programs will facilitate a more cohesive plan for maintaining salmon populations.



o      The Act protects ‘salmon strongholds’, which is defined as all or part of a watershed that meets biological criteria for sustaining “viable” populations of salmon throughout their range.   The standard for what constitutes a “viable” population has yet to be established.

o      The diversity of interests and motivations of the members of the Salmon Stronghold Partnership Board could be a barrier to the implementation of effective conservation programs throughout the region.   


Policy Option B: Amendment to the Endangered Species Act


            The second policy option is an Endangered Species Act (ESA) amendment to improve coverage through the ESA so that the act has the power, resources, and appropriate scope to seriously address the possible extinction of Northwest salmon populations.  

            The ESA, which already lists many salmon populations as endangered or threatened, authorizes unlimited funds for the protection of endangered species.  Although it has not yet had an impact on helping to restore salmon populations, there is significant evidence that when species are listed early, and when their critical habitat and recovery plans are promptly produced and properly implemented, the ESA can be effective in stopping decline and improving recovery.  However, the longer that the NMFS or the USFWS wait to classify and plan for the recovery of salmon populations, the more complex, expensive, and difficult it becomes to protect them.  Therefore, the ESA needs to be amended to specify that it must:


  • make easily available the funds and resources it promises;
  • be specific about who develops and implements conservation strategies;
  • develop a prompt timeline for those plans and actions;
  • solidify strict minimum acceptable criteria for judging the needs, critical habitat, and recovery status of a species; and
  • ensure cohesiveness within and between different conservation efforts.


This amendment will preserve salmon populations by ensuring the prompt creation of fast-acting, well-funded, overarching plans to protect them in all three of their habitats – oceanic, estuarial, and river.  Improving the strength and scope of the ESA would be an ambitious move for salmon conservation because not only does it serve to better directly protect the highest-risk populations, but it also increases protection for other dwindling (but non-listed) salmon populations as a part of the food supply/habitat of listed endangered species such as the Southern Resident orca whale population. 



  • The ESA is a very powerful piece of legislation that authorizes unlimited funds for species protection and provides sweeping support for recovering salmon populations, not to mention other endangered species. 
  • Protections provided by the ESA are unlikely to be surpassed by any new legislative action, so it would be much more expedient to strengthen the act that is already enabled to accomplish these protections in the first place. 
  • The ESA targets the most critically endangered salmon populations, which is extremely important in the context of preserving every single fishery and the jobs they support all over the Northwest. 
  • Strengthening and broadening the act’s definition of a species’ “critical habitat” to include the habitats of migratory food sources could authorize protection for other salmon populations that make up the food supply for the listed endangered Southern Resident orca. 



  • ESA laws protecting salmon in the past have been less than effective because of their failure to quickly and cohesively implement plans to preserve their habitat. 
  • Even with a new amendment, the changes may still be difficult to enforce on the ground.  
  • An amendment to the ESA may be very difficult to pass, especially in the current political climate, if it can not be properly framed as an effort to protect economies and jobs. 
  • Enforcing the ESA can be very expensive, since unlimited funds are authorized without much structure or direction. 
  • The nature of the structure of the ESA may prove to be non-conducive to collaboration with other agencies, consolidation of programs, and involving a variety of stakeholders in the process. 




We recommend Policy Option A.  The Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act establishes a cohesive plan for protecting salmon populations in their oceanic, estuarial, and river habitats: an initiative that has been lacking in previous salmon protection plans.  It accomplishes many of the goals of Policy Option B without having to amend the ESA directly, making it an easier and more targeted legislative avenue for protecting salmon.  Within the act, it supports ESA goals and brings together different ESA projects and conservation plans under one name and governing body.  Additionally, the Board will have representatives from all of the departments that currently have existing legislation protecting salmon in different habitats, as well as from other stakeholder groups that have traditionally been left out of these important conversations.  It facilitates public-private as well as international communication between entities that have similar interests, goals, and concerns about salmon.  This will create a more cohesive plan for the conservation of these species.  Policy Option B would also be a good action to take for salmon conservation, but the ESA is already a contentious piece of legislation.  Amending it would be a laborious process and it would take much more time than passing the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act – time that salmon don’t have to waste.


Sources and Annotated Bibliography


“Clean Water Act (CWA).” Agriculture. United States Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lcwa.html.

This site provides the text for the piece of legislation, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, also known as the Clean Water Act. 


“Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).” Agriculture. United States Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lzma.html.

The text of the Coastal Zone Management Act is detailed here.


“Endangered Species Program.” United States Fish and Wildlife Service. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/wildlife.html.

This site provides a listing of the species protected under the Endangered Species Act.  A page is provided for each species listed as Endangered, Threatened, or Under Review, detailing recovery plans, critical habitats, life histories and other resources.


Library of Congress. S.817: Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act of 2009. Washington, DC., 2009. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/D?d111:2:./temp/~bdjYPl::|/bss/111search.html|.

The text, cosponsors, related bills and amendments of the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act of 2009 are detailed on this site.


Safina, Carl. 2010. Save the salmon – and us: The Obama administration’s plan for the Columbia Basin doesn’t go nearly far enough. Los Angeles Times. 24 Jan. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/24/opinion/la-oe-safina24-2010jan24

This opinion piece criticizes the government’s current approach to salmon conservation, arguing that the ESA only puts salmon on a lifeline and doesn’t address the real problems facing their conservation. He emphasizes the dependence of orcas on salmon, arguing for conservation of the fish in light of that connection as well.

Taylor, Martin F. J., Kieran F. Suckling and Jeffrey J. Rachlinski. “The Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: A Quantitative Analysis.” Minnesotans for Sustainability. (April 2005), http://www.mnforsustain.org/envir_study_endangered_sp_act_0405.htm.

Based on their findings, this quantitative study of population trends for species listed under the ESA recommends that the government increase funding for earlier listing and prompt provision of critical habitat and recovery plans, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the program.

“The National Marine Sanctuaries Act.” Legislation. National Marine Sanctuaries. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/legislation/.

This site gives some background on the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, but mostly focuses on the results of this piece of legislation.  Details about the actual marine sanctuaries created are given.


Upstream Battle. DVD. Directed by Ben Kempas. 2008; Germany: Arte.

This documentary chronicles the fight of Native Americans in Northern California working to save the salmon in their rivers. They confront the energy corporation that runs the hydropower dams cutting off the salmon habitat, traveling as far as Scotland to make their case and uniting with Northwest fishing communities in their struggle. It is a powerful film about resources, jobs, culture, and community.

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