NEAH BAY (December 22, 2004) — Centuries ago, Makah fishermen had a unique understanding of their traditional fishing grounds and knew the populations of groundfish such as halibut from years of harvesting in the same area.

“Families fished the same areas year after year. They knew the fluctuations in the populations, and if the fish numbers were healthy, they would allow other tribal members to fish in their area,” said Russ Svec, Fishery Manager for the Makah Tribe. “Today, it’s a lot more complicated. We have to be involved in the scientific assessments of populations as co-managers of the resource. We continue to push for better area assessments so we can move toward a regional management approach instead of relying on California and Oregon-heavy research to set our management goals up here,” said Svec.

The Makah Tribe is located in waters rich in halibut and other groundfish species such as black cod. Tribal fishing economies have increasingly relied on these fish as salmon stocks and prices have dropped. The need to know area-specific information about groundfish species has also grown as more fishermen, tribal and non-tribal, harvest the more lucrative fish.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), the entity that manages fisheries in waters 3-200 miles off the West Coast, manages the various groundfish species as a single, coastwide management unit. Harvest levels are set either as a single quota or as two regional quotas. This has led to disproportionate landing trends along the Pacific coast. Under this management approach, harvest is not directly related to the abundance of targeted species in a particular area. Consequently, harvest off the California coast can lead to increased harvest restrictions off Washington.

The existing data gaps result in the need for restrictive fisheries coastwide, regardless of regional differences in the health and abundance of some rockfish stocks.

Roger Bain, a Makah tribal member who has fished for more than 20 years, believes in the value of moving toward regional fish management. “For instance, we have more yelloweye up here (a rock fish species of concern) than they do in California, and it’s found in shallower water,” said Bain. “You can’t accommodate those area differences in the current management scheme.”

Bain’s expert knowledge, was key to helping Makah fisheries managers adjust fishing seasons to avoid unwanted bycatch of yelloweye. By fishing earlier in the spring, halibut fishermen reduced their yelloweye bycatch. “I think PFMC is doing better at getting specific information about each of these species. Now we need more specific area information about canary and dark blotch rockfish,” said Bain.

This year, as in past years, groundfish biologists from Makah and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission helped National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to complete two con-current occurring surveys for groundfish over 19 days. Tribal biologists Brandon Bryant and Rob Jones worked the survey beginning in Newport, Oregon and finished in Neah Bay. One of the surveys is new, looking at different areas than the old design. It is one step in the direction of obtaining better data for the different regions. The tribes would also like to see better surveys conducted in groundfish habitat, which is rocky. Much of the current surveys for groundfish occur in areas with smooth bottoms, which is not the habitat they prefer.

“This information is critical for us,” said Svec. “Decisions made about the resource have impacts that ripple through our community here. It’s very close-knit. Fishing changes impact our village economically, socially, and culturally.

“We’re not going anywhere. We aren’t as mobile as the non-treaty fleet. They can move on if an area becomes depleted. This is our home. We are the natural stewards. We have to preserve the ecosystem here.”

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For more information contact: Russ Svec, Fishery Manager, Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3160; Brandon Bryant, groundfish biologists, Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3157; Debbie Preston, coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501