Updated June 24, 2019, with quote at bottom from the Wild Steelhead Coalition
Don’t hang up your Skagit-Sauk spoons, pink worms, plugs, jigs and flies again quite yet.
State fishery managers appear to have a gameplan for how to keep the rivers’ wild steelhead catch-and-release fishery open next spring, a U-turn from just a few weeks ago when it was set to be eliminated after the license fee bill that would have funded it wasn’t passed.
With initial support from the Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month, WDFW would ask state lawmakers for the money to monitor the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
They’re looking to include $547,000 in a supplemental budget request for next January’s short legislative session. A final go-no go decision will come in August.
But it’s not a slam dunk either.
If the money isn’t appropriated by the legislature, WDFW would have to scavenge from other programs to cover the federally required monitoring next year, and 2021’s season would either be reduced or eliminated.
Still, the turn-around will buoy fans of the iconic North Cascades fishery that had been closed for nine years starting in 2009 due to low runs and as they picked back up, was the subject of much work and lobbying by the Occupy Skagit movement and other anglers to get a management plan written to reopen the waters.
After an initial 12-day season in 2018, this spring saw a full three-month fishery, and while the catches weren’t great, it was still wonderful to be on the rivers again during prime time.
“Almost universally people were excited to be there, happy to be there, and extremely thankful for the opportunity to be there,” angler advocate and retired North Sound state fisheries biologist Curt Kraemer reported to the commission last weekend. “(Among the) probably 100 people I talked to, that was the commonality, and I don’t hear that a lot about outdoor recreation in this state, whether it be hunting or fishing, and I do a lot of both.”
But even as the sun shone brightly over us gear and fly, and boat and bank anglers working the glacial, mountain waters this spring, storm clouds were brewing in Olympia.
Funding for two years’ worth of creel sampling, enforcement and a biologist to oversee the fishery over the strong but still Endangered Species Act-listed winter-run stock was part of WDFW’s 15 percent license fee increase proposal.
But it was also on the “enhance fishing” side of the ledger, which essentially made it optional compared to things on the “maintain” side.
When the fee bill failed, tangled in issues 200 road miles to the south of the Skagit-Sauk confluence — Columbia River gillnetting policies — WDFW had to figure out how to rebalance its budget.
Even though lawmakers gave the agency $24 million in General Fund dollars to make up for not passing the license increase or Columbia salmon-steelhead endorsement, what initially was just a $7 million shortfall grew to $20 million as they heaped on new unfunded costs.
On May 30, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind sent out an email that “the current Skagit catch and release fishery will not receive funding and thus that opportunity will be eliminated.”
The next morning during a Fish and Wildlife Commission conference call alarms were raised.
“It’s about as clean a fishery as you can imagine. I would really, really object to that being eliminated,” said Chairman Larry Carpenter of nearby Mount Vernon.
That got the wheels turning again.
This is about the time of year that state agencies begin to prepare their supplemental budget requests for the upcoming legislative session, and at last week’s regular meeting of the citizen oversight panel, WDFW staffers presented proposals for discussion.
It included $271,000 to monitor the 2020 Skagit-Sauk fishery, $276,000 for 2021.
“There was Commission support for that approach,” Nate Pamplin, WDFW policy director, told Northwest Sportsman this morning.
The proposal also includes $833,000 in 2020 and $854,000 in 2021 to patch up what he’s termed a “significant shortfall” in funding to monitor Puget Sound and coastal salmon fisheries — another victim of the fee bill failure.
“This request will fund staff to provide the greatest fishing opportunities possible while satisfying ESA and conservation needs,” commission documents state.
Money for both Skagit-Sauk steelhead and salmon monitoring is listed as coming from the state General Fund, under the proposals.
If it doesn’t pan out, though, WDFW would be left lifting couch cushions to figure out how to pay for the former fishery.
“If we don’t secure the supplemental in the first fiscal year, it’s a bit more challenging,” says Pamplin. “We’ll have already spent some money on the fishery since it opens in February and we’ll not receive final word on the supplemental budget from the legislature until mid-March. Thus, we’d need to find reductions elsewhere in the fourth-quarter of the first fiscal year to cover the expenses already incurred for opening the fishery.”
The fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.
“For the second fiscal year, it’s fairly straight-forward. If we don’t secure the supplemental, the fishery would be proposed to be reduced/eliminated,” Pamplin adds.
Meanwhile online, Wayne Kline of Occupy Skagit issued a “Three Minute Steelhead Challenge” to fellow fans of the fishery to contact their legislators to build support for funding it.
“We’re glad to hear the Commission is directing the Department to find funding for this iconic fishery,” said Rich Simms of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, “but this underscores the much larger need for committed funding from our legislature for our fish and wildlife into the future.”