NOAA: Wash tribe does not have permission to shoot seals

By Rachel La Corte
Olympia, Washington (AP) 9-07

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said during mid September that the Squaxin Tribe does not have permission to kill seals that interfere with their fishing, an issue that was raised after an unusual amount of harbor seals washed up dead.

According to Cascadia Research, a marine-mammal research group, 17 dead seals have been found in the past two months in southern Puget Sound. The animals had been shot or showed signs of head, neck and body trauma or starvation. Four washed ashore in the past few days alone, according to Olympia-based Cascadia Research, a marine-mammal research group.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research told The Olympian newspaper that his office received reports of 17 dead harbor seals in the south sound area in the past two months and has examined 12 of the carcasses.

Most of the cases involve pups or yearlings, and some of the deaths have no visible causes.

“These are unusually high numbers,” Calambokidis said, noting that in most recent years, only about four or five late-summer harbor seal mortalities are reported to his group.

Calambokidis did not immediately return phone messages from The Associated Press.

Some of the deaths may be linked to the Squaxin Island tribal gill net salmon fishery, because several hundred harbor seals live in south sound waters, and the seals are known to chew on salmon caught in gill nets.

Two messages left with the tribe were not immediately returned Thursday, but the tribe told The Olympian that it had permission from NOAA Fisheries to harass and even kill harbor seals that interfere with its salmon fishery.

Jeff Dickison, assistant natural resources director for the Squaxin tribe, told the newspaper that if the seal deaths were higher this year “it’s because there is more of a fishery this year.”

But NOAA officials say the tribe must seek a waiver to kill seals, which has not been done.

Brian Gorman, a NOAA spokesman, said that a 2004 ruling by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of gray whale hunting by the Makah Tribe applies to all tribes.

In that ruling, a three-judge panel ruled that the Makah Tribe must seek a waiver to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to resume hunting gray whales.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 restricts the harassment or killing of marine mammals. However, it allows people to deter marine mammals from damaging private property, including fishing gear and catch, as long as the methods don’t kill or seriously injure the animal.

Earlier this month, the Makah case was back in the spotlight after five members of that tribe were accused of getting into a motorboat Sept. 8, chasing down a gray whale, and harpooning and shooting it. After 10 hours, the whale died and sank to the bottom of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The tribe was awaiting a decision from the fisheries service on its waiver request for a new legal hunt. In 1999, five years after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, members of the northwest Washington tribe legally hunted and killed their first whale in seven decades.

Leaders of the Makah Tribe traveled to Washington, D.C. last week to express regret to federal officials and members of Congress for the unauthorized killing. A decision by NOAA Fisheries on whether to grant the waiver is expected by 2010.

Gorman said that before the 9th Circuit ruling, tribes in Puget Sound had a treaty right to take marine mammals during fishing operations.

But “the 9th Circuit opinion certainly applied to other treaty tribes, like the Squaxin,” he said.

“We are going to have to work with the tribes on an appropriate policy that respects both tribal rights and the appeals court decision of 2004,” he said. “We need to talk to the tribe and resolve this issue in a fair way.”