Federal, state, and tribal officials have agreed to an ambitious program of cooperation to fight fish poaching on Mendocino County's scenic Garcia River, Rep. Jared Huffman announced last week.

"This is a really great outcome ... What we needed was better coordination and understanding about how the state, federal, local and tribal authorities were going to be working together," said Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose district includes Mendocino County.

The key to the deal is an agreement to work with outside law enforcement by the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo, who control two key pieces of land along the river bank. The tribe denies that members are major players in poaching endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout on the river, but they admit that the tribal land has created jurisdictional confusion for game wardens and police, and that the tribe and local law enforcement don't have a history of cooperating.

"There hasn't always been this trust that way," tribal Chairman Nelson Pinola said. "For me this is pretty historic, because we've never done anything like this before."

The Garcia River has been a major focus of conservationists in recent decades. Private groups and governments have spent at least $25 million to preserve former timberlands and restore the habitat for fish and other creatures, damaged by a century of logging, farming, and other development.

Threatened populations of salmon and trout had begun to creep back up by the early 2000s, but game wardens and local landowners say the return of the fish caused a surge in poaching, not just around the tribal land, but also along private lands far upstream. That illegal fishing threatens the recovery of the fish spawning grounds and undermines the expensive restoration work.

Huffman and Pinola said talks had been underway for some time to better coordinate law enforcement efforts, but they took on added seriousness after an article in The Press Democrat in March highlighted a pattern of jurisdictional confusion between state, federal and tribal officials that was hampering the crackdown on poaching.

Under the new deal, the tribe agreed to set up its own enforcement system, allowing local officials to issue citations for illegal hunting or fishing on the land. Minor cases would generally be tried by a regional consortium of tribal courts; major cases would be referred to federal or state agents for prosecution, Pinola said.

The tribe does not have its own police force, but citations could be handed out by tribal officials and land managers, he said. The tribe will consult with federal and state agents on every case to determine which court would be the best venue to prosecute.

Tribal members, meanwhile, would need to apply for new fishing permits issued by the tribe. That would help cut down on a persistent problem of non-tribe members poaching on tribal land and attempting to claim that they therefore enjoyed some kind of exemption from state laws, Pinola said.

State and federal game wardens could use the licenses to quickly separate tribal members from interlopers, Pinola said. Tribal members on tribal land are exempt from most state hunting and fishing laws, though nobody is exempt from federal laws protecting endangered species such as the salmon and trout.

Pinola said the tribe would be conducting education campaigns to make clear to members the rules governing endangered species and explaining the importance of protecting the river.

Spokesmen for the National Marine Fisheries Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife did not respond to requests for comments on Friday, but Huffman said the two agencies had agreed to closer cooperation with each other as well.

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman was also at the table during discussions among the parties in recent months and he said the agreement with the tribe could be useful in clearing up other legal gray areas for tribal officials and law enforcement.

"This working relationship will allow us to work on other issues that can be solved in the best interest of everyone," he said in a release hailing the agreement.

Pinola continues to say that tribal members were not a large part of the poaching problem, but he said the agreement to work with outside law enforcement fulfills the tribe's larger interest in preserving the environment of their ancestral homeland.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)