New salmon policy in play on Willapa Bay

Fishermen protested WDFW’s Willapa Bay salmon policies at a conference in Long Beach in 2015. Does such visible opposition have anything to do with Willapa salmon meetings now being held outside the county?

Two recent decisions by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are enough to generate doubts about the agency’s genuine interest in listening to public feedback concerning certain fish and wildlife decisions.

First, the good news: Even though razor clam management is a topic of heated local debate in south Pacific County, there never is any doubt about agency commitment to public engagement on the subject.

WDFW Coastal Shellfish Manager Dan Ayres and Jerry Borchert of the Washington Department of Health, which oversees razor clam toxin testing, will wade into the shark tank on Sept. 25 at the Ilwaco Heritage Museum from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to discuss often-controversial clam management, and answer questions. Good for them — community members appreciate their availability and hard work.

Not good, on the other hand, is WDFW’s continuing pattern of conducting meetings about Willapa Bay salmon management outside Pacific County. The second of two 2019 meetings on the subject is set for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18 at the agency’s regional office at 48 Devonshire Road in Montesano.

There can seldom be a good reason to conduct ostensibly public meetings about a key local natural resource at a remote location. Montesano is a somewhat inconvenient 35-minute drive from Raymond and whopping hour and 45 minutes from Nahcotta. While undoubtedly convenient for WDFW staff, this siting for Willapa Bay meetings certainly does not place high priority on the public’s participation.

It is tempting to think that strenuous objections to WDFW’s Willapa salmon policies are the reason behind such a decision. The department is an almost unwinnable situation in having to moderate long and deep disagreements between commercial and recreational fishermen on the bay. And it invented a new problem for itself by redefining escaped hatchery salmon as “natural” runs deserving of stringent protections.

If WDFW doesn’t desire to hear complaints, holding relevant meetings in a location inconvenient to Willapa residents is a good way to achieve that aim. It should rethink this before fisheries commissioners rubber-stamp their staff’s decisions in October.

Somewhat similarly — though of lesser immediate interest here on the coast — WDFW’s cancellation of 14 previously scheduled open houses throughout the state concerning wolves smacks of being chicken. The September and October forums were supposed to collect comments on how wolves should be managed once they are breeding all over rural parts of Washington. Conceivably, this could someday include the Willapa Hills.

Fish and Wildlife said it had information that the meetings could be disrupted and even unsafe. The department did not provide specifics.

“We’ve seen incredible intensity around wolf issues this summer, on both sides of the issue. For outreach to be meaningful, our meetings have to be productive,” Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, we’ve received some information that indicates to us that the meetings could be disrupted, possibly creating an unsafe meeting environment for the public participating,” he said.

Instead of open houses, the public will be able to ask questions and comment during “digital open houses,” according to WDFW. Susewind promises “additional in-person engagement opportunities” sometime later on.

We all get it that rancorous debates can be unsettling and uncomfortable. But democracy happens in the open, not online or in agency offices.

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