At least two Columbia River Indian tribes plan to sue the state of Oregon for refusing to allow the tribes to sell steelhead to consumers.
The lawsuit was to be filed today on behalf of the Warm Springs and Yakama tribes in U.S. District Court, Ted Strong, executive director of the Columbia River InterTribal Fish Commission, said Monday.
The Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes may join the lawsuit, Strong said.
The tribes had planned to start selling steelhead to the public Wednesday at parks or riverside docks along the Columbia River for $2 a pound.
But state law prohibits non-Indian residents from buying steelhead from tribal sellers. A treaty agreement allows the tribes to sell the fish to licensed commercial buyers and canneries, but because of heavily stocked runs this year, fishermen can expect just 22 cents a pound.
Last fall, tribal gill-netters found they could make more money selling fish directly to the public than to local stores.
“We’re losing a hell of a market here. We’re losing it to an overregulated Oregon state fish industry,” Strong said.
The lawsuit was prompted by the Oregon Fish Commission’s decision Friday to uphold the ban on the public’s ability to buy the steelhead from the tribes.
Strong claimed the state Fish & Wildlife Department was going out of its way to enforce the law, which has rarely been used since it was passed in 1976 by voters who wanted to designate the steelhead as a game fish.
State police have issued fliers and public-service announcements warning Oregonians that they, not the tribal fishermen, would be committing a crime if they bought the fish.
Capt. Lindsay Ball, in charge of the Oregon State Police’s fish and wildlife enforcement division, said he is only enforcing a law that has been in effect for over two decades.
“If those people are saying that I’m targeting them, that is absolutely false,” Ball said. “We did not want people to innocently go down and purchase a fish in violation of the law.”
The penalty for buying a steelhead in Oregon is up to one year in jail or a $5,000 fine, or both. Three citations were issued last year.
The four tribes still plan to legally sell other nongame fish, such as chinook and shad, caught in tribal gill nets between the Bonneville and McNary dams. They have set up a toll-free phone number to handle the business.
They’ll haul ice in semitrucks from Washington state to chill the fish and begin selling from boats and pickups at Cascade Locks on Wednesday, when the next fishing season starts. The season ends once the tribes have harvested their limit of 27,000 steelhead.
Strong estimates the tribes could sell up to 68,000 pounds of steelhead to the public, if the law permitted. At $2 a pound, they could make about $136,000 for the harvest, compared to $14,900 at the 22 cents they expect to get from commercial buyers.
The tribes have been able to sell steelhead legally to individuals across the river in Washington state for the last two years. In Oregon, commercial buyers can only sell the fish out of state.
Strong said even though salmon and steelhead runs are declining in the Columbia, the current glut is reason enough for the state to rescind the rules.
“We’ve done this ever since white settlers came out to the West,” Strong said. “This is not a conservation issue. This is not about fish that are endangered.”
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