RAYMOND — Nearly nine months after a settlement agreement ended a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife over its management of commercial and recreational salmon fisheries in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, the department is beginning to work on a policy for Willapa Bay.
“It’s time at last to provide a road map into the future,” said Steve Theisfeld, the new fish program manager for WDFW’s Region 6.
Since 2010, the salmon fisheries in bay and the rivers that drain into it have been managed by a draft plan instead of a policy approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. But, under the terms of the state’s Jan. 24 settlement agreement with the newly formed non-profit Twin Harbors Fish and Wildlife Advocacy, WDFW must develop policies to guide how salmon fisheries in Grays Harbor and Willapa are managed.
(The formation of the Twin Harbors group itself was also a condition under the settlement. The lawsuit, Hamilton, et al. v Wash. Dep’t of Fish and Wildlife, was originally pushed forward by three individuals.)
WDFW has already completed a policy for Grays Harbor — one of “the most prescriptive of all policies,” laying out strict allocation and conservation guidelines, Theisfeld said.
Now it is Willapa’s turn and, in light of the stringent Grays Harbor policy, commercial and recreational fishermen are trying to sort out what that could mean for them.
Unlike most of the Pacific Northwest, Willapa Bay has no treaty tribal fisheries. It is an area staked out by commercial fishermen and anglers.
The 2010 draft plan for Willapa Bay was intended to provide a framework for WDFW as the department shifted its hatchery and fishery management strategies. A copy WDFW employees passed out at an open house last week still featured a highlighted comment under the executive summary: “To be expanded later.”
The open house on Oct. 25 in Raymond was the first of many meetings planned from now through February. The information gathered at two meetings this month, however, will be presented to the commission Nov. 8 as the department moves forward with drafting a management policy for Willapa Bay. The commission is chaired by Miranda Wecker of Nemah.
“We certainly have an interest in stabilizing what we do out here,” Thiesfeld said. But, he added, “I think it’s going to be very hard… There are clearly very divergent opinions in how salmon should be managed.”
Both anglers and commercial fishermen attended the open house Oct. 25, walking from table to table in the Raymond High School cafeteria and gathering up piles of printed material, asking questions about the information. According to WDFW, the objectives for the day were to provide information about Willapa Bay policies and guidance, stock assessment, fisheries and hatcheries and hatchery reform.
“Our wild fish are taking a huge beating,” said Gary Johnson, a South Bend resident and a member of several local conservation and angler, or recreational fishing, interest groups. He organized a small rally before the open house, propping signs against the side of Raymond High School. (Johnson is unrelated to the former Chinook Indian Nation chairman of the same name.)
He and others believe WDFW has ignored its own conservation and management guidelines, instead emphasizing and maximizing hatchery production and commercial harvest. They are not confident a new policy will solve the problems they see on the rivers and the bay.
“Well, we have a management policy,” said Ross Barkhurst of South Bend, who joined Johnson outside the high school, referencing a draft Willapa Bay Management Plan from 2010. “It needs tightening up. But our current policy said you couldn’t net Chinook but they did anyway. So what’s the good of a new policy?”
Meanwhile, commercial fishermen worry a policy could regulate them out of the area entirely.
For commercial gillnet fishermen, life on the Columbia River has become more complicated as both Oregon and Washington seek to phase out the gear on the river’s mainstem, replacing it with beach and purse seine gear. Thiesfeld hasn’t heard yet if the Willapa Bay policy would need to address those changes and a possible influx of gillnet boats.
But WDFW is also looking at a possible 15 percent cut in general fund dollars, which could, according to documents provided to the governor’s office projecting the effects of such a cut, close two hatcheries feeding Willapa Bay and shut down Willapa Bay fisheries entirely.
“I think the key there is they may or may not,” Thiesfeld said. They won’t know until late in June, he said. Meanwhile, the hatcheries still have another four years of fish returning as several years of hatchery-produced salmon make their way back to their birthplace.
“There are still plenty of fish to be caught in the short term,” Thiesfeld said.