Guest Editorial: Bad Data, Bad Policy

Robert Sudar, a fish broker and former commercial fisherman from Longview, Washington, was on hand to witness the recent decision by the State of Washington to follow through on a plan to close the mainstem Columbia River to commercial fishing. Here is his review.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission met in Vancouver on Saturday, January 14th, to consider moving ahead with the Columbia River Reforms. The Coastal Conservation Association packed the room, but that’s to be expected in the heart of anti-commercial sentiment in Washington.

The Commission heard a report from staff, but we didn’t get to see it until we got there. Then the Fish Committee – including three of the strongest anti-commercial Commissioners – gave their reports, as did Bob Kehoe, Executive Director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association, who is the fourth member of the Fish Committee.

Larry Carpenter gave the majority opinion, which was a modification of the Oregon plan, but we aren’t sure exactly what it says, because we saw it on the screen before the vote but nothing has been posted online, nor was it in any of the handouts. It was actually outlined by Commissioner Carpenter before any public testimony was presented. Basically, it ends our spring access (including with tanglenets), no summer Chinook fishing unless we can find a “selective” method other than gillnets (and then only at 40 percent of our 2012 share), an August gillnet fishery above Woodland for two more years but with another reduction in impacts (from 30 percent to now 25 percent), and I’m not sure what would be available for coho – maybe just tanglenets in October.

Kehoe presented a great minority report, calling for a continuation at the current sharing levels for two more years, to see how Select Area releases perform and how the industry fares with declining runs. He had solid reasons and clearly pointed out where the Policy has failed – essentially in all aspects. We thought we had support for Kehoe’s proposal, but in the end some of our stronger supporters faltered, perhaps because of the crowd, and then the others on the fence could move to the majority cause without being a deciding vote. It ended up 7-2.

It was really painful to hear all of the inaccurate testimony from the crowd, along with another misleading staff report of half-truths. This Commission absolutely fails to use staff to resolve differing testimony. Instead, we have had to essentially testify against staff, which is a losing proposition with most commissions and committees. This hasn’t really been a battle between recreational and commercial fishermen, it’s been between staff and commercial fishermen. If the Commissioners would ask staff to address whether our fishery is any more of a risk to wild stocks than the sport fishery, or whether we can fish selectively with our gillnets, or whether hatchery fish removal will increase or decrease when our fishery is gone, it would help to diffuse the controversy and allow the Commissioners to vote based on science, but they have NEVER done that.
The Commissioners allowed legislators to speak (without a 3 minute time limit). Senator Dean Takko, from Longview, spoke on behalf of our fishery and on his hope that there could be fish for all user groups.

Senator Lynda Wilson, from Vancouver, spoke in favor of the reforms. So did Representative Liz Pike, from Camas, Washington, who said “I want you all to be bold. I want you to have a spine. I want you to do the right thing.’’ Nice dialogue from our elected representatives.

They also allowed Larry Cassidy, a former commissioner, NW Power Planning Council member and a board member of WACPAC, a recreational PAC, to testify unhindered. One of his classic comments was “There’s nothing, that I know of, that swims into a gillnet that doesn’t die.” So that pretty well describes what we heard from the sport folks, over and over again, and what we were up against.

We just can’t win in Washington with the current makeup on the Commission. And part of the problem is probably that salmon management on the Columbia is so confusing it’s no wonder they can’t understand it well enough to see what this mess really is. Carpenter and his cronies said that this was a great step for conservation and for wild fish, and that selective harvest is the key, and yet they also cut our spring Chinook tanglenet fishery, which has a better mortality rate than any sport fishery except spring and steelhead. It’s all about sport fishing, it’s all about hating gillnets, it’s all about allocation.
Commissioner Mahnken, who is stepping down after this meeting, said that he used to think he could use science in making his decisions but now he realizes that he has to blend science and politics. I think that’s a direct contradiction to SHB 2261, which requires that they use best available science and peer review when making any major decisions, but I guess that only matters when they want it to. It’s basically just what I said in Seattle before Christmas: until someone calls the Commission to task for the way they are managing a public resource, and insists on staff acting as a barometer for good science instead of providing the testimony they think Carpenter, Graybill and Wecker want to hear, it will be hard to save our fisheries. It may be too late for us now, but maybe not for others.

So Friday we are in Oregon, trying to get their Commission to hold the line. They understand the issue a little better and a couple of Commissioners understand commercial fishing. They also have a legislative mandate to enhance our fishery while making these changes. Actually Washington has that provision, too, in RCW 77.04.012, but staff only uses “the department shall seek to maintain the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry in the state.” They ignore the next sentence, which says “The department shall promote orderly fisheries and shall enhance and improve recreational and commercial fishing in this state.”

So if we do get Oregon to provide more support and pass a Policy option that keeps us more whole, negotiating an agreement between the two states, which co-manage the fishery, could get really messy. We even heard some testimony Saturday suggesting that Washington break the Columbia River Compact, after almost 100 years, if Oregon won’t agree. It was easy for them to make bold talk when the room was filled with people wearing CCA hats.

My seine skipper back in the 70s and 80s used to often say “poor America” when discussing recent government activities. I didn’t understand exactly what he meant then, but I think I’m getting an inkling now.

Robert Sudar is on the front lines of the Columbia River fish battle. He is working tirelessly to educate both states’ lawmakers on the realities of the tribal, non-tribal and recreational fisheries on the Columbia River. He could use your help. Contact your Washington State representative and let him know that fishing policy should be based on science and law, not favoritism.