North Sound Group Sues Feds Over Salmon Season Setting Process

Editor’s note: Updated 8:02 a.m., April 29, 2021

A North Sound organization filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Western Washington late Wednesday afternoon against federal and state salmon fishing overseers, claiming the agencies are violating part of the Endangered Species Act related to the process for setting seasons.


Fish Northwest of Anacortes alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Commerce, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior and WDFW are violating ESA by “1) not allowing the State to pursue an ESA Section 7 permit; 2) allowing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to obtain a Section 7 permit when they have no legitimate standing to obtain a permit; and 3) ignoring the conservation requirements of Puget Sound Chinook.”

The text of their lawsuit became available on the federal court case system overnight and, among other elements, it asks for a judge to declare 2020’s fisheries package in violation of Section 7; determine that 2021’s fisheries don’t comply with ESA and are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with the law”; issue temporary and permanent injunctions against the defendants to comply with ESA; and enjoin NMFS and USFWS from authorizing salmon fishing in Puget Sound until they conduct Section 7 consultations.

It argues, in part, that agencies knowingly approve exploitation rates on Skokomish River fall Chinook of 50 percent despite NMFS’s maximum rebuilding rate for the stock being only 35 percent and the number of natural-origin kings returning to the southern Hood Canal river frequently falling below the critical spawning threshold of 452, leading to a “downward spiral.”

“We are aware of the action and are reviewing it,” said NMFS spokesman Michael Milstein early Thursday morning.

Social media reaction to the filing was mixed, with anglers arguing against and for the action.

The lawsuit follows up on a 60-day notice the group filed in federal court this winter before the beginning of North of Falcon, the annual process that splits the harvestable surplus of Chinook, coho, sockeye and other salmon stocks.

That had Ron Garner, Puget Sound Anglers state board president, circulating a warning to club chapters early this month about potential “unintended consequences.”

“Are we ready to roll the dice on shutting down our fishing with the possibility of it not reopening for years, or possibly forever? This lawsuit could do that. This has to be said,” Garner stated.

Whether as a signal on the threatened lawsuit or a comment on NOF, or both, state, tribal and federal salmon managers have essentially been speaking as one on the importance of collaboration, comanagement and habitat work in regards to salmon in recent weeks.

The 2021-22 seasons were tentatively agreed to earlier this month, but “consultations on 2021-22 Puget Sound salmon fisheries are ongoing,” according to a WDFW emergency rule-change notice for Area 13 Chinook out Wednesday evening.

Fish Northwest also filed a separate lawsuit last October in federal court to allow it to intervene in the Boldt Decision

That drew pushback from WDFW, NWIFC and the Department of Justice, who asked a judge to deny the petition.

The organizations members have been particularly frustrated with last winter’s closure of blackmouth fisheries in the San Juans and North Sound waters, ongoing state-tribal Chinook and coho catch disparities in favor of the latter fleet, and the structure of NOF that now piggybacks WDFW’s salmon permit on the tribe’s application to the feds, weakening the state’s position, they feel.