Historic accord sets stage for anti-poaching program in California’s Garcia River watershed

Winter 2013/2014

Spear fishing, prohibited nets, and illegal barbed and weighted hooks have unfortunately become familiar fishing practices in recent years on the Garcia River, a coastal watershed in northern California. These methods are not only illegal, but also used to unlawfully catch federally protected salmon and steelhead. Poaching is the term used to describe such activities, but it doesn’t do justice to the severity of the problem. At stake are decades of conservation work and the future of the river’s endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead runs—including Central California Coast coho salmon, California Coastal Chinook salmon, and Northern California Coast steelhead. Over $25 million in government and private funding has been invested in the restoration of the watershed, and in the early 2000s the investment started to yield strong fish returns. As fish returns increased, so too did the impact of poaching. Fish returns have once again declined in the Garcia River watershed, even though numbers in adjacent watersheds have increased.

Enforcing the regulations further compounds the problem. The Garcia River watershed includes several jurisdictional boundaries as it meanders through northern California. Two large swaths of land belong to the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians. The tribe, however, historically has not had the resources to identify and apprehend poachers. And though U.S. federal agents and California game wardens have the authority to investigate and enforce Endangered Species Act violations on tribal lands, state enforcement policies prevented state agents from entering tribal lands for enforcement actions, including poaching activities.

Poaching is not limited to tribal lands, however. It is occurring throughout the watershed, including on private lands upstream. In March of 2012, while assisting the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department in a drug-related case, California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens seized 18 wild steelhead and 56 ducks. With the help of NOAA law enforcement, led by Derek Roy, and fisheries biologist Joshua Fuller, the poacher was convicted. This became known as the Stornetta case and helped set the stage for improving coordination among federal, state, local, and tribal officials.    

The desire to address poaching more effectively culminated in a new, unprecedented anti-poaching accord. The agreement, which was recently announced by tribal Chairman Nelson Pinola and Congressman Jared Huffman, focuses on coordinating efforts among the different jurisdictions to ensure we’re combatting poaching on both tribal and private lands. Under the agreement, the tribe will establish its own fishing regulations for tribal members — consistent with state laws — and state game wardens will be able to pursue enforcement on tribal lands. Partners are also discussing a process for referring violations to the tribe for adjudication. In addition, the agreement includes an important educational component. Thanks to support from The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and The Conservation Fund, fish identification materials will be distributed locally, and informational signage will be placed throughout the watershed to reinforce anti-poaching efforts.

At the heart of the accord is an agreement to protect the listed fish that are so vital to this river and region. “We want folks to enjoy and appreciate this amazing resource,” said Joshua Fuller of NOAA Fisheries. “But we must be cognizant of the fact that the Garcia River’s salmon and steelhead runs have declined considerably and poaching severely threatens their recovery.” This groundbreaking, collaborative agreement will go a long way in preventing the unlawful harvest of the watershed’s protected fish. Dick Butler, Branch Supervisor at NOAA Fisheries, commended the tribe, stating, “By entering into this agreement they are making a positive societal change to the benefit of steelhead and salmon. The tribe is setting an example that we should all follow.”

We encourage the public to report any suspicious activity to the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement by calling 1-800-853-1964.

Photo: Home page photo of Juvenile chinook, by Chris Adam, California Department of Fish and Wildlife.