Will it be the bag limit behind Door No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6?
WDFW staffers will present the Fish and Wildlife Commission a half dozen options for liberalizing bass, walleye and channel catfish retention in select waters across Washington later this month.
They range from the complete elimination of size and daily limits on 146 lakes to expanded bags but with standard slot size protections for spawners on a set of just 14 lakes which have Chinook runs in their headwaters.
The citizen panel is scheduled to make a final call the morning of Saturday, Dec. 14, at its meeting in Bellingham. Public comment will be taken.
They’re acting on a bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year.
While primarily strengthening habitat protections for Chinook, Substitute House Bill 1579 also requires the commission to liberalize limits on the three nonnative but popular warmwater species “in all anadromous waters of the state in order to reduce the predation risk to salmon smolts.”
It was among a set of measures aimed at helping out endangered southern resident killer whales, which mostly feed on Chinook though also coho, chums and steelhead at select times of the year.
But bass anglers rebelled against WDFW’s initial proposal that would have eliminated rather than liberalized limits on 106 waters in Puget Sound, 18 in coastal watersheds, 12 in Southwest Washington and another dozen on the Eastside.
“We’re hoping today we can kinda come to some kind of consensus, maybe not to just destroy but can we surgically do something?” Phil Martin, president of the Mt. St. Helens Bassmasters, asked the commission in mid-October. “We’re conservative fishermen, we don’t want to destroy the fishery for anything, whether it be salmon, carp, bass, panfish. That’s what we do, but there’s got to be a better alternative than just genocide on the bass, walleye and catfish populations.”
And with commissioners pushing back as well, state fishery managers developed a matrix of six options, which differ based on how many waters they would affect and the extent of the liberalization.
Option A1 would be the full elimination of limits on all 146 lakes, while A2 would expand the daily bag on them for largemouth from five to 10 (none between 12 and 17 inches and only one over 17 inches); on smallmouth from 10 to 15 (only one over 14 inches); on channel catfish from five to 10; and on walleye from eight to 16 (only one over 22 inches).
For Option B, the list of lakes was whittled to 77 after subtracting out those that didn’t have bass, walleye and/or channel catfish, or public access, but still said to have salmon spawning in their headwaters.
Option B1 would eliminate limits on all 77, while B2 would expand the limits as described in A2.
And for Option C, the list was narrowed down to 14 lakes which adult Chinook and their fry swim through, have bass, walleye and/or channel catfish, and have public access.
Those waters include popular bass lakes such as Washington, Union, Sammamish, Osoyoos, Vancouver, Ohop and Kapowsin, smaller ones such as Cottage, and overlooked lakes such as Scanewa, Cushman, Mayfield and Wynoochee.
Under C1, they would see limits eliminated, while C2 would follow A2 and B2.
In their briefing packets, WDFW staffers only recommend Option B, leaving it up to commissioners whether to choose the wholesale elimination of all limits on the 77 lakes or expanded bags instead.
That alternative would mesh with the legislature’s intent to protect “salmon smolts.” The lakes and their feeder streams largely represent habitat for coho, which are important to orca diets in the inland sea in late summer.
But it’s also questionable how productive some of those waters are compared to larger river systems and hatcheries, as well as how recently salmon have actually used them.
Some like Lakes Sammamish, Union and Washington are a critical conduit between the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, which annually raises millions of Chinook and coho fry, and the saltwater.
While that King County watershed’s Chinook were not federally identified as important for southern residents, Scanewa and the Cowlitz River, where springers are being reintroduced in the upper end, has been.
At any rate, the rule change would primarily affect bass, as channel cats are limited to few lakes and on the Westside they are typically too cold for reproduction, and fortunately few walleye have been illegally brought over the Cascade crest.
Even as largemouth and smallmouth aren’t as coveted on the table in Northwest and also have consumption advisories out for women and children due to mercury, the episode has served as a warning for bass anglers that they “need to have a voice in Olympia,” in the words of Joel Nania of the Inland Northwest Bass Club.
He joined Martin and several others at the state capital in mid-October to talk to the commission about limits.
During written public comment, there were 500 comments in favor of liberalized limits, 190 against.
SHB 1579 follows on previous prodding by federal fishery overseers to do more in the Columbia system to protect outmigrating smolts preyed on by the three spinyrayed species. WDFW several years ago waived daily and size limits on the big river and its tribs.
The primary factors impacting reduced Chinook and salmon abundance are massive, long-term, all-encompassing habitat destruction from the tops of our mountains to the depths of Puget Sound, and declining ocean productivity.
Whether the commission chooses to liberalize limits on 14, 77 or 146 lakes, it has a tough needle to thread between lawmakers, pro-orca public sentiment and a portion of its constituents.