By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
The mere mention of gillnetting salmon and other fish from the Smith River in an ordinance proposed by the Smith River Rancheria has state officials and fishermen throughout California ready to fight.
Although the rancheria says the new ordinance only sets up an infrastructure for seeking fishing and other natural-resource rights, that isn?t comforting to sport fishermen.
?We feel gillnetting in that river, with the salmon and trout runs being so fragile, will have tragic effects,? said Ben Taylor, a resident of Kenwood, Calif. who has traveled here to fish the Smith for 25 years.
Taylor is a driving-force working to stop the rancheria?s efforts in its tracks.
Members of the California Federation of Fly Fishers, local river fishing guides, officials of the Department of Fish and Game and others are preparing to fight any movement to let anyone gillnet on the Smith.
?If the Native Americans are allowed to gillnet that river, it will severely impact the economic development of this county,? said Craig Bradford, director of the Del Norte Economic Development Corporation and a lifetime Smith River fisherman.
Bradford said if salmon and steelhead are caught at the river?s mouth before they get to their spawning streams, populations of the already dwindling fish will take a dive. Tourists hoping to sportfish would then be out-of-luck.
Laura Mayo, the environmental programs director for the rancheria, said she has received several letters of concern about the ordinance. One came from faraway Maine.
But Mayo said the concern may be misplaced, because the ordinance does not authorize anyone to gillnet or bag higher limits than allowed by state law.
Instead, the ordinance sets up a sort of infrastructure for the tribal council in case traditional fishing such as gillnetting and weir-trapping, become possible, she said.
On an order from the rancheria?s legal council, Mayo was only able to provide this prepared statement about the controversy:
?The ordinance is not in any way intended to allow tribal members to exceed state catch limits.
?The ordinance is intended to create a mechanism for communication between the tribe and regulatory agencies like Fish and Game, and to create an internal structure to assist the tribe in managing our own tribal resources,? Mayo said.
She emphasized that no efforts are in the works now to authorize gillnetting, trapping or permitting tribal members to exceed current catch limits set by state law.
However, Mayo said in January that the rancheria is looking to provide more rights to its members, allowing them to catch more than the state limit of one salmon, one steelhead and two trout per day during the legal season.
Currently, 900 people are enrolled as members of the Smith River Rancheria, including 200 who actually live on the reservation?s land. The boundaries extend from the mouth of the Smith River north into the watershed of Lopez Creek.
Captain Steve Conger of the California Department of Fish and Game said it will be extremely difficult for the rancheria to get any rights on the Smith that differ from current state law.
?It would take one of two things: an act of Congress or a proclamation from the president of the United States, which would still have to be passed by the Legislature. And even then, we at the state level would fight it,? Conger said.
On the county level, Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn said he and fellow supervisor, Clyde Eller, plan a meeting with rancheria officials next week.
?We?re hoping to find out exactly what the rancheria intends to do on this,? said Blackburn, who is taking a careful approach to the issue.
?Until I sit down with them, I?m not going to jump to conclusions about what their intent is with this ordinance,? he added.
Yesterday, Blackburn, Bradford and four Fish and Game officials from Sacramento went on a fishing trip together on the Smith.
With three boats, the group set out to fish the lower section of the river.
Blackburn said the trip was set-up at the request of Bob Treanor, the director of the Fish and Game Commission in Sacramento. L.B. Boydston, a Fish and Game administrator of Sacramento, Neal Mangi, Fish and Game?s head biologist for the northern region and Alan Grover, a Fish and Game ocean-management biologist, were also on the fishing trip.
Blackburn said longtime Smith River guides Mick Thomas and Mark Fenton volunteered to guide two of the boats and were able to share their knowledge of the Smith with the Fish and Game policymakers.
Treanor and his three colleagues were already in Crescent City for a meeting on a different subject.