A Chinook spawns in a Washington state river. Credit: Photo: Dan Hershman
Despite the 1995 and 1999 voter rejection of initiatives favoring sport fishing, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission moves steadily to restrict and eliminate commercial fisheries in Washington state. Under a veneer of conservation rhetoric, the commission has reallocated salmon, crab, prawns and now Columbia River Chinook from food fish harvesters to the politically powerful sport industry. On Jan. 12, they voted to eliminate the 150-year-old Columbia River non-tribal commercial salmon fishery, which has been a significant source of livelihood for the economically depressed southwest Washington region.
Not a single commercial fisherman nor any representative from the food industry sits on the nine member Fish and Wildlife Commission to speak for an industry which accounts for 15,000 jobs in the Seattle area alone, according to a Port of Seattle study. No one speaks for the fish consumers which my family fishing business supplies at King County farmer’s markets, nor for the majority of state citizens who buy their local salmon at the fish counter. While they are excluded, the trophy-hunting Safari Club, the sport gear sales industry, fish farm advocates and other game-oriented groups all find seats at the fish and wildlife table, alongside nominal conservationists. Arguably, the current composition of the commission violates state statute, which mandates that the governor “seek” a balanced approach to management of fish and wildlife in appointments.
Former U.S. Representative Jolene Unsoeld was one of the only dissenters on the commission to challenge the idea that “hook and release” sport fishing was a conservation measure. As a result, she was savaged by a sport fishing columnist as an “idiot” who “represented only the tribes and commercial interests.” After what Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times called “an ugly and personal campaign,” the sport lobby succeeded in purging her from the commission.
In 2008, Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings resigned under pressure. Dr. Koenings served for ten years, had been a distinguished Alaskan fisheries manager and scientist, and had chaired the Chinook Technical Committee for the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Commission. He was widely regarded as an excellent professional manager who brought order to the state’s salmon recovery strategy in the wake of federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) intervention to protect Chinook salmon. His resignation was greeted by Tony Floor, sport industry spokesman and former WDFW employee, who stated for the Seattle Times, “We couldn’t move forward (with Koenings).”
The commission replaced Koenings with Phil Anderson, a former sport charter boat fisherman and a long time Fish and Wildlife employee. His educational credentials at the time consisted of community college attendance. As the director of a major state agency, he was hired in by the commission at a recommended salary of $141,000 per year.
In the wake of such political hardball and patronage, the state now has a commission that pursues narrow policies tailored for the recreational sector. A good example of this emphasis is the Delayed Release Chinook Program.
Under this WDFW program designed to create a year round Puget Sound sport fishery, chinook are held in aquaculture facilities for extended, expensive rearing. When released, these voracious feeders are designed to stay resident in Puget Sound rather than follow their natural migratory instinct to the Pacific.The ecological impact of this program on resident species and wild salmon smolts, such as ESA-listed chinook, has not been researched.
However, the state auditor’s office did estimate the fiscal impact of the Delayed Release Program to the state’s taxpayers. Each of these fish caught on a sport rod cost state taxpayers $768. Moreover, these boutique, resident fish feed in polluted estuaries such as the Duwamish and Commencement Bay and test at elevated levels for persistent toxins such as the fire retardant PBDE. At least one study has shown a direct correlation between length of Puget Sound residency and levels of PBDE in resident Chinook.
As overall justification for its sport subsidies, the commission lowballs the value of commercial seafood harvesting, while inflating sport fish economic impact. Hans Radtke, former Pacific Fisheries Management Council Chair and natural resource economist, estimates that the commission’s economic study hosted on its website underestimates commercial fishing contributions to the state economy by a factor of twenty-five.
Referendum 45 created the Fish and Wildlife Commission in 1995, removing the governor’s office from direct control over the Fish and Wildlife Department. Henceforward the governor could appoint the nine commissioners, who would then make policy and hire the director. It mandated a geographical representation system biased against the state’s population centers in Western Washington. Rather than insulate natural resource policy from politics, the commission structure created a new layer of patronage and special interest, further removing public policy from accountability.
Two small steps to begin reforming WDFW have been introduced this legislative session. HB 1112 mandates that scientific literature used to support significant agency action be publicly identified. HB 1189 would mandate a balanced representation of interests on the commission.
The decision to steamroller the Columbia River commercial fishing community was a fish grab that had nothing to do with conservation. If nothing else, it should reopen the debate over the existence of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The public has a legitimate interest in the sustainable harvesting of our local waters. That public interest in the Puget Sound food economy would be far better served by returning control over fish and wildlife to a directly elected official — the governor — and retiring an unnecessary and politicized bureaucracy.