PCFFA Fishermen’s News June 1998: Why Habitat Matters to Fishermen

June, 1998


A Tribute to Nat Bingham

By Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

Last month not only PCFFA but the entire fishing industry lost one of its great champions and leaders, Nat Bingham. A salmon troller for over 30 years, Nat was always there to remind us that in the midst of struggling to make a living that we also had to keep in mind the more fundamental necessities of the fishing life. One of those most often neglected — and by far the most important for the future of our industry — is the protection of fish habitat.

Most members of the general public still behave as though fish spontaneously appear ?somewhere in the ocean.’ If pressed, they might give a nod to the concept of protecting their habitat, but very few have any clear idea what that really means or where fish come from. In part this is our industry’s failure — it is our obligation to educate the public about these thing as well as to educate ourselves. Nat’s view was that it is also our obligation to always press hard for the protection of those areas from which fish come and upon which the future of our industry depends.

The equation is really simple — the better and more extensive the habitat, the more abundant the species. This means protecting and restoring not only salmon habitat (reaching far inland) but all the nursery beds for groundfish, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, pollack, halibut and every other area which supports or is important to any of the species which support our industry. This also implies protecting the fragile marine ecosystems upon which we all depend. It was Nat’s view that wherever fish are, or wherever they go, it is our obligation to protect them.

Wherever you look in North America today you see species on the verge of extinction. For freshwater inland fish, according to the American Fisheries Society (AFS), roughly one-third of all America’s fish species are now at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat and water pollution. On the west coast, there are major ESA listings for coho salmon, for chinook, for chum, for steelhead and many more salmonid listings are proposed. All seven major salmon species are now extinct on the west coast in 38% of their historic range, and in serious trouble in at least 56% more. In every case, loss or pollution of freshwater and near-shore habitat in a major driving force toward extinction. Each loss of habitat costs our industry money. One 1991 report (based on NMFS figures) estimated the total economic losses to our industry already caused by habitat destruction to exceed $27 billion/year at a cost of more than 450,000 jobs nationwide.

With coastal populations growing at about four times national average, coastal wetlands and estuaries have taken the biggest hit. Roughly 75% of the nation’s commercial landings of fish and shellfish (77% by weight and 71% by value) are from estuarine-dependent species. Some portions of our industry, such as the Gulf of Mexico, are up to 98% estuarine-dependent. Yet biologically crucial wetlands continue to be lost to rampant coastal development. Even under existing laws intended to establish a national ‘no net loss’ policy, the rate of wetlands loss has only slowed, not halted or reversed.

Through Nat’s leadership as PCFFA’s President for ten years, the fishing industry started speaking out against these losses and has continued to be a vocal advocate ever since — not out of some vague philosophical idea of environmentalism but out of sheer economic necessity. Wetlands loss destroys fisheries jobs.

Our concern with habitat loss has since been echoed by many reports and pronouncements by federal agencies and fisheries managers:

“There is growing concern about the future economic prospects of industries that depend on abundant fish and shellfish stocks. Many of the past assessments of declining stocks have cited overharvesting as the primary reason, but we found that there is a growing concern within NMFS and the fishing industry that overfishing is being overshadowed by an even more significant threat: loss of fish habitat….’ (U.S. Dept. of Commerce. Program Evaluation, Major Initiatives Needed to Protect Marine Habitats. Final Report, IRM-5442, January, 1994 (37 p.). Office of the Inspector General, Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.)

The current Director of NMFS, Rollie Schmitten, has also spoken publicly on the critical need for habitat protection to the commercial fishing industry, as follows:

“My central message today is that the protection of fish and wildlife habitats is a national problem in critical need of attention…. The assignment of endangered and threatened status to many species is symptomatic of the cumulative, ongoing nature of broad-based habitat deterioration…. Habitat loss and degradation are the major factors contributing to endangerment and extinction…. The war to conserve fish and wildlife habitats is being lost.” (58th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, Washington, DC 1993)

“[O]ver the long term [nearshore ocean and estuarine fishery habitat] loss is probably the greatest threat to marine fishery productivity throughout the United States… Fisheries management will be moot if habitat loss and degradation destroys the productive potential and the quality of our living marine resources.” (National Symposium on Coastal Fish Habitat, Baltimore, MD, 1991)

Meanwhile, NOAA habitat protection programs are systematically underfunded by the Administration, stripped of any real authority, and what little funding is requested gets whittled away by a hostile Congress in the hip pockets of coastal developers.

Through PCFFA, Nat helped strengthen and expand the longstanding tradition of fishermen fighting to save habitat. This tradition continues and grows. For instance, we recently sued the Corps of Engineers in support of Columbia River crab fishermen to stop the dumping of dredging spoils on a $50 million crab nursery at the mouth of the Columbia. We also recently joined NMFS in a suit to force removal of the Savage Rapids Dam, one of the worst fish killing dams on the coast.

Under the leadership of Nat and our Board, PCFFA and its member organizations have now become an effective voice in protecting the natural resources which are the foundation of our industry. Together with many allies (both within and outside the industry), fishermen have won major political and court victories for clean water, healthy watersheds and unpolluted estuaries, as well as spearheaded the drive to give more habitat control to fisheries managers. This is a course the fishing industry must stay into the future, including fighting in the following arenas:


PCFFA and other fishing groups led the decade-long fight to pass the California Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1991, which guarantees 800,000 acre-feet of water for fish and wildlife restoration from the Central Valley Project. To date the irrigators have done everything possible to block implementation, and in February, 1998, PCFFA, the United Anglers of California and several other organizations sued the Department of Interior and Bureau of Reclamation to enforce those provisions.

Water flows in the Upper Klamath Basin have also been a key limiting factor for fish restoration there, and fishermen have been working for years to increase flows for fish in that basin. There are also problems with over-appropriation of water from fish-bearing streams throughout the west coast. In most basins there are more water withdrawals legally allowed than there is water available. Sheer lack of water is clearly a problem for salmon, but also causes salt water backup in crucial estuaries upon which many other valuable species depend.

Lack of water flowing in rivers also exacerbates water pollution problems coastwide which jeopardize many offshore fisheries. There are plenty of opportunities for fishermen’s groups to fight for better instream flows for fish. The strengthening and reauthorization of the federal Clean Water Act should also be a high priority.


Dams are the bane of the salmon fishing industry. Dams now block more than 55% of the entire Columbia Basin, and 90% of historic chinook spawning habitat in the Central Valley. Fishermen have long fought a rearguard action against the West’s dam building frenzy. Now, however, many of these dams are up for relicensing and in the near future most will have to be substantially modified or will have to come down. Federal agencies have way oversold and over built dams — there are more than 2900 in the Columbia River Basin alone, with thousands elsewhere on the west coast. Each dam is a passage problem for anadromous fish.

PCFFA and many other fishermen’s groups (both commercial and recreational) are actively working to remove such fish killing monstrosities as the two Elwha dams and the four lower Snake River dams in Washington, the Savage Rapids and Elk Creek dams in southern Oregon, and several smaller dams in the California Central Valley. There are plenty of opportunities for fishermen’s groups to work for dam reform, and this is an effort that continues.


The tragic spill of the Exxon Valdez brought home the damage that even a single leaking tanker can do to fragile marine resources. Fishermen fought for and got compensation in that case, but this was only a fraction of their actual losses. Yet since that time, however, the cumulative amount of oil spilled in vital marine or estuary areas has already equaled several Exxon Valdez’s. Now the very laws which require cleanup and compensation for damage from such spills are under attack in Congress by well-heeled Big Oil interests, including the Superfund law, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Ocean Dumping Act. There are also constant threats to lift the moratorium on offshore oil drilling that the whole west coast fishing industry fought for and won. We also still do not have a requirement for all oil tankers to be double-hulled — a true no brainer since that would make spills much less likely.

In fact all the laws preventing water pollution are under constant attack in Congress by developers, agribusiness and industrial polluters. Chief among them is the Clean Water Act, which limits water pollution. Though the Clean Water Act has been a great success, there is still much to do — even after 25 years, 4 out of 10 rivers in the U.S. are still so polluted they are not fishable or swimmable. Water pollution is a leading cause of fish extinctions.


About 55% of all the nation’s wetlands in the lower 48 states has now been lost. Coastal wetlands are relatively scarce, making up only about 5% of the total national wetlands acreage, but have suffered the greatest losses. Wetlands are the nursery or feeding grounds for salmon, pollack, crabs, halibut, shrimp, menhaden, stripers, bluefish, lobsters and a wide variety of other species. In fact the productivity of most commercially fished marine species is directly dependent upon those same coastal wetlands — and the greater the loss of wetlands, the greater the loss of fisheries jobs. Many fishing organizations (both commercial and recreational) have joined the effort to protect wetlands and near-shore nursery grounds for valuable fish resources.

PCFFA helped co-author a report entitled ‘Fisheries, Wetlands and Jobs: The Value of Wetlands to America’s Fisheries’ (1998) documenting the enormous importance of wetlands to the U.S. $152 billion/year commercial and recreational fishing industry. A printed copy of this report can be obtained from the Clean Water Network, 1200 New York Ave., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005 for $5. (Checks should be made payable to ‘NRDC.’) An electronic copy of this report is also available from PCFFA’s own Web site at: www.pcffa.org/reports.htm


Not only salmon, but a wide variety of estuarine-dependent species must have healthy inland watersheds for their survival. Too many of our coastal watersheds have been overlogged, overgrazed and overdeveloped, and this is costing our industry many tens of thousands of jobs.

Restoring healthy watersheds on the west coast means limiting and redirecting the impacts of logging, grazing, agriculture and urban development so that these activities become far more ‘fish friendly.’ Many of the nation’s current land use practices simply do not take aquatic habitat protection into account, and also greatly exacerbate problems with sediment and chemical pollutants. Destructive but still commonplace practices just pass the burden of water pollution and erosion downstream where it slowly chokes the life out of coastal fishing-dependent economies, silts over estuaries, creates huge ‘dead zones’ in the ocean, and ultimately passes the costs and burdens of pollution on to the shoulders of the taxpayer.

In fact many of the worst land use practices are economically wasteful as well as unnecessary. Logging, for instance, can be profitably conducted with much wider riparian buffer zones and a great deal more attention paid to protection of unstable slopes. Farmers actually benefit from better stream protections and limiting the use of chemicals. None of the doom and gloom predictions fostered by vested interest industries supposedly resulting from such reforms have ever come to pass. Fishermen have been fighting to reform these destructive practices for many years, but also to work constructively with these industries in making these changes as painless as possible.


Finally, one of the most important steps is to give fisheries managers more control over fish habitat. In the past, all fisheries managers could ever do was manage fishermen. These agencies have historically had no legal power to stop or limit habitat damage caused elsewhere by others. Whenever habitat declined, the only available remedy was to close more fisheries — in other words, punishing the victim but never treating the real problem. Now, finally, there are new tools that fisheries managers can use to protect habitat.

A promising new avenue for habitat protect is the recently adopted ‘Essential Fish Habitat’ provisions of the Sustainable Fisheries Act which PCFFA helped write and Nat and other PCFFA staff lobbied for heavily in Congress. These new provisions give the Regional Fisheries Management Councils at least the power to identify and comment on federal actions which may, in the opinion of the Council, affect areas designated as ‘essential fish habitat’ in fishery management plans. Though weak, nevertheless it is at least a beginning of the recognition that fishery management must include management of habitat impacts at all stages of a species’ life cycle, not just at the tail end. We need to work as an industry in making use of this new power and in expanding its impact. We also need to be self-policing. There are still practices within the fishing industry that destroy habitat, and these must also be curtailed and phased out as soon as possible.

Nat always emphasized that one of the best things fishermen can do to assure a future for themselves and their industry is to organize in defense of fish habitat. Wherever that habitat is, we must be there as well, always speaking out against any activities that jeopardize the future of our resource. It is no longer enough for fishermen just to fish. It is no longer enough to struggle with the annual allocation battle. If we are to have a future as an industry, we have to make sure that there will be fish to harvest by protecting their habitat.

Sometimes this makes us controversial. Nat’s view, however, was that if working for a decent future for our industry ruffles feathers, then so be it! Resistance always comes from those who would do nothing — or worse, from those who for short-sighted profits would destroy the very basis of who we are and how we live.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Nat Bingham, PCFFA Habitat Director and past President, who lived his life by these principles. No one did more to protect and restore fish habitat than he did. Nat leaves a lasting legacy of service for all the rest of us to follow.

PCFFA is the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishermen. Glen Spain is PCFFA’s Northwest Regional Director and can be reached at PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 (541)689-2000 or Fax: (541)689-2500. PCFFA can also be reached by email to: fish1ifr@aol.com. For more information on PCFFA and its many habitat protection programs, visit our Web site address at: www.pcffa.org.