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Columbia Endorsement Still Needed Thru June 30 To Fish Salmon, Steelhead

Yes, state lawmakers just cut bait with Washington’s Columbia salmon and steelhead endorsement.

No, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to buy one if you finally decide to fish the big river should it reopen for springers, or hit Drano in prime time for kings or the Cowlitz for summers over this month and next.

WIND RIVER SPRING CHINOOK ANGLERS FISH DURING FOGGY CONDITIONS DURING THE 2011 FISHERY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“Anglers pursuing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and its tributaries will still need the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement through June 30, 2019,” WDFW Policy Director Nate Pamplin said Tuesday morning.

That date late next month is the end of the current budget biennium, but the $8.75 fee was not extended past that point as the legislative session came to a close this past Sunday.

What that means for WDFW and its recreational Chinook, summer-run, coho and sockeye fisheries held everywhere from Asotin to Brewster to Cathlamet between this July and June 2021 has yet to be determined, but should become clearer as staffers parse through the agency’s just-passed budget for the coming two years.

Though lawmakers passed neither the endorsement nor 15 percent fishing and hunting license fee increase, they did provide a one-time $24 million bump in state sales tax revenues to fill a $31 million shortfall.

The Columbia surcharge has been an important funding source.

“We relied heavily on the revenue from the CRSSE to monitor and enforce recreational fisheries, in particular above McNary Dam, to comply with our ESA permits,” said Pamplin.

That’s because to hold seasons over Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead stocks, the National Marine Fisheries Service requires WDFW to watch those fisheries much more intensely than, say, those on your garden-variety trout, bass and kokanee lake.

The endorsement was passed by the 2009 legislature to patch in part a gaping WDFW budget hole caused by the Great Recession and sharply decreased General Fund contributions.

From April 2010, when it went into effect, through 2017, it has been purchased 1.6 million times and raised $12.1 million, according to WDFW.

That money goes towards “the costly activities necessary for managing fisheries while minimizing impacts to several wild fish populations in the basin that are federally protected. These management activities include enhancing fishing access, conducting research, and monitoring and enforcing fisheries,” the agency stated in a pitch to lawmakers before this year’s session.

With the endorsement expiring in mid-2019, three bills extending it were introduced by legislators.

The initial versions of WDFW’s license fee increase request bills —  HB 1708 from Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) and SB 5692 from Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge) — would have OKed it through June 30, 2023.

And the stand-alone bill SB 5871 from Sens. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake) and Dean Takko (D-Kalama) had it running through that date too.

But following the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s early March vote to delay implementing Columbia reforms, in early April, the endorsement was pointedly not included in the Senate operating budget proposal and was also reduced to June 30, 2021 in an amended version of SSB 5692 by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), who included a number of policy items targeting fishery management on the big river as well.

Ultimately both license increase bills died — 1708 with a proposed amendment from Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) that would have limited the endorsement to two years instead of four and another from Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) that would have tied its extension to at least $14.9 million for hatchery production.

Then in the final hours of the session last weekend, SB 5871 was reactivated, and on the floor of the Senate Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline) proposed an amendment with a one-year extension instead of four.

Neither were voted on, and they were dead in the House anyway, Rep. Blake said yesterday afternoon.

Here’s where it gets a little convoluted as fish politics come into play.

Yes, the endorsement was part of Blake’s HB 1708 and as chairman of the House natural resources committee, he said he has certain duties to the community and the state on fish and wildlife bills.

But no, he’s “never wanted to extend” the endorsement.

Blake said that the June 30 sunset clause forces WDFW to “chase the string” to get it reauthorized, and that he receives and sees a lot of complaints about the charge.

“The whining and crying is not worth it in my mind,” he said.

Anglers are angry about a lot of things these days, including decreasing runs and opportunities and piniped predation, among others, and the fish commission’s Columbia reforms vote certainly raised hackles.

In a post-session legislative wrap-up, the Coastal Conservation Association of Washington termed that decision “the greatest roadblock to its [the endorsement’s] reauthorization,” but Blake, who is known to advocate for commercial fisheries, maintains the citizen panel was being intimidated well beforehand to vote one way or WDFW’s license fee increase would die.

In the end, no fees were passed, leaving holes to fill.

Asked how he would instead fund the Columbia monitoring and enforcement that the endorsement pays for, Blake said he would roll it into an underlying fee bill so it is just part of the cost of a license, say, the Fish Washington package.

Blake said he would also like to take another stab at a fee bill as well as “stabilize” WDFW’s General Fund revenues next January, when the legislature reconvenes for the short session.

That one-time $24 million GF bump the agency received appears to be split into two-thirds for the first year of the 2019-20 biennium, one-third for the second.

“It is disappointing to be in a spot where in two years the $24 million expires and we’re back into a significant budget hole,” WDFW’s Pamplin told The Lens.

Pittman-Robertson Act allocations for state wildlife management are also expected to be down $5 million due to slower gun and ammo sales than earlier this decade.

Meanwhile, as WDFW staffers go through what they’ll have to work with and work on in the coming two years, Blake has a forecast for what will happen to angling on the Columbia and its tribs without the endorsement.

“I think the department will most likely keep the fisheries on the Columbia open as long as they have money,” he said.

With this year’s poor expected steelhead and summer and fall Chinook runs, that could be a little easier with, theoretically, fewer anglers on the water, but a big coho return is also predicted to come in later in the season.