Tribes lead fight against fishing restrictions

By Sudhin Thanawala
San Fransisco (AP) February 2011

Northern California Native American tribes are clashing with state wildlife regulators over plans to restrict fishing off parts of the rugged coastline from the Oregon border south to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

The tribes, including the Yurok, the state’s largest, say proposals for marine protection areas along the North Coast infringe on their fishing rights.

Those proposals – currently before the state fish and game commission – were crafted under California’s 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, which was aimed in part at preventing overfishing and restoring depleted fisheries.

“The main issue is the Marine Life Protection Act has the potential to make criminals out of cultural practitioners,” said Nick Angeloff, historic preservation officer for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria. “It is the biggest threat to tribal sovereignty in decades.”

Although the state has created marine protected areas along other parts of its coastline, opposition until now has mostly been from commercial fishermen concerned about their livelihoods. On the North Coast, tribes have been the effort’s main critics. At stake for them, tribal representatives say, are cultural practices dating back thousands of years and their sovereign rights.

“We are part of this ecosystem,” said Yurok Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, Sr. “We have never stopped gathering. We have never stopped harvesting, and we will continue to gather, hunt and harvest from the waters of the ocean.”

State wildlife officials and advisors say they can’t carve out an exception that would allow tribes to harvest marine life from coastal waters while maintaining restrictions for other users. That would be illegal under laws guaranteeing equal access, said Ken Wiseman, executive director of the Marine Life Protection Act initiative.

Additionally, Wiseman said opening those areas to all noncommercial users, including the tribes, would conflict with science guidelines and the marine protection act’s goals.

But the two sides appear closer to a solution following a meeting earlier this month. The new head of the state Natural Resources Agency, John Laird, called at the Feb. 2 meeting for a solution that accommodates the tribe’s gathering rights while maintaining restrictions for other users, tribal representatives and state officials say. State and tribal officials are currently working on carving out an exception for tribes based on the religious and cultural significance of fishing to their members, Wiseman said.

“It’s a cultural tradition that shouldn’t be interrupted,” Wiseman said of the tribes’ fishing practices. “The challenge has been that we’ve wanted to give them an exemption, but not had the tools to do that.”

The Marine Life Protection Act called on the state to redesign the system of marine protected areas along its entire 1,100-mile coastline. It found that existing protections had been created piecemeal and without scientific evidence to support them.

The state’s coastline was divided up into regions that would be reevaluated for protection.

The fish and game commission has so far approved marine protected areas for three of the five regions – the South Coast, the Central Coast and the North Central Coast. Regulations for the Central Coast and North Central Coast are already in effect, greatly expanding the area where fishing is prohibited or otherwise restricted.

“As the process has moved up north, there has been more opposition from tribes,” said John Corbett, senior attorney for the Yurok Tribe.

Tribal representatives say that, unlike their counterparts in Southern California, many tribes in the northern part of the state have not been pushed inland.

“Northern Indians still have a coastal experience,” said Louie Guassac, who represented the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association on a task force set up to help create the marine protected area in the Southern part of the state.

The Yurok say they fish for subsistence, pulling mussels off rocks by hand and fishing from the shoreline. Mussels, smelt and other marine resources serve as food or decoration for ceremonial regalia.

“It is a significant component in people’s lives,” Corbett said.

According to Corbett, fishing restrictions on the Yurok and other noncommercial users were based on faulty science.

The science panel created by the department of fish and game exaggerated the number of noncommercial users who would fish and the amount of fish they would harvest if they had free reign, he said. Rough seas, cliffs and the numerous areas with no vehicle access serve as natural impediments to harvesting fish.

“Once you have the numbers jimmied like that, then the model is no better than the assumption put into it,” he said.

Wiseman stands by the science panel’s numbers, saying it assumed the worst possible impact to marine life. The fish and game commission has agreed not to act on any of the proposals before it until a solution is reached with tribes, he said.

“If we can find this administrative solution, allow ongoing activities without opening areas to all recreational users, that’s the win-win.”