There may not be a Skagit-Sauk steelhead catch-and-release season next spring due to WDFW’s growing money woes, a “bitter pill” for the anglers who worked for half a decade to reopen the iconic North Cascades waters.
The recently reinstated fishery is now on the chopping block as state managers scramble to figure out what to cut coming out of the recent legislative session that only partially filled a shortfall — and which subsequently also ballooned from $7 million to $21 million.
Rich Simms, cofounder of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, said his organization was “deeply disappointed” by the news relayed in an email late last week by WDFW Director Kelly Susewind that Puget Sound’s sole opportunity to fish for wild winter-runs would be “eliminated.”
“While we recognize the difficult budget situation the Department faces and strongly support Olympia ending the underfunding of our fish and wildlife, we believe WDFW should do everything possible to keep the Skagit catch and release steelhead fishery open,” Simms said in a statement.
Closed due to low runs in 2009, returns rebounded several years ago, but because the region’s steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal overseers require the fishery to be monitored as part of the state permit, and that costs a pretty penny.
Before this year’s February-April season, WDFW staffers estimated that between hiring a new biologist to oversee the fishery and write reports, bringing on creelers, providing them with rigs and things like waders, and then flying the rivers to double check angler numbers, it would cost around $210,000 a year to provide the opportunity.
The receipts are still being tallied and it is already likely in the neighborhood of $150,000, per district fisheries biologiat Brett Barkdull, but it was also anticipated that that “Cadillac” level of monitoring for the first full season (spring 2018 saw an abbreviated 12-day opener) would likely be backed off in the coming years.
But now, it may be moot.
That there might not be another season for at least the next two years caught the attention of the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a conference call last Friday.
Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon defended the fishery and pointed out how the group Occupy Skagit had worked diligently with the citizen panel since the early years of this decade to open the rivers again.
“It’s about as clean a fishery as you can imagine. I would really, really object to that being eliminated. I think it’s false economics and I just don’t think it’s going to work into the future,” Carpenter said.
His comments came as commissioners discussed raising the WDFW vacancy rate — the number of agency jobs that are open but purposefully left unfilled — from 4 percent to up to 4.3 percent to save some money.
That idea didn’t go over well with Commissioner Dave Graybill of Leavenworth who related how a Bellingham creel sampler he’d talked to during a recent spot prawn opener was told there was only six month’s salary available for her position but that she could be reassigned away from the town she’s lived in for 22 years.
“We really have to think about the impact of what we’re doing if we consider any other increases to that 4 percent. I would object to any movement that would increase that,” said Graybill.
Also on his mind was the expiration of the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement after lawmakers failed to renew it and which will primarily impact opportunities in his neck of the basin.
“I don’t know where we’re going to find the money to conduct fisheries in my region particularly,” Graybill said.
This year’s runs are poor, so there won’t be much fishing, but just like the Skagit-Sauk, some of those seasons are subject to federally required monitoring.
Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane sympathized with her colleagues.
“These are really hard decisions. Everybody has a favorite fishery and whatever we cut is going to be hurt. As David’s pointed out is, what’s being cut across the board are the Upper Columbia fisheries,” she said.
While funding for those fell victim to state lawmakers not extending the endorsement, money for the Skagit C&R fishery was built into WDFW’s license fee increase proposal to the legislature, which also died.
The steelhead coalition’s Simms blamed the latter failure on organizations that opposed the hike because of “contentious issues and discontent with the Department” — code for the commission’s Lower Columbia salmon reforms pause vote.
Technically, the Skagit money has been on the “enhance opportunities” side of the fee increase ledger, and WDFW Director Susewind told commissioners he would struggle to move it out of what is effectively an optional category over to the “maintain” side.
“We’ve been pretty transparent with folks that, absent money, we’re not going to be able get to the enhancements and that was one of them. We’ll dig in, we’ll do some additional work, but … at some point we have to make the final decision. And we also, frankly, have to quit doing everything that we said we couldn’t do when we don’t get the money,” he said.
Susewind said that leads to credibility issues with lawmakers about the original need, and also results in a poorer work product “which further erodes our credibility.”
But an immense amount of work also went into getting the Skagit-Sauk fishery back — that longterm lobbying Carpenter referenced, staff from not only WDFW but three tribes writing a joint management plan, and the feds weighing and ultimately signing off on the document.
For WSC’s Simms, the Skagit-Sauk fishery is not only an economic driver for mountain towns well off the beaten path in late winter and early spring but the “sustainable” opportunity is a “powerful tool” for conservation.
“Losing this fishery once again after only one full fishing season would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the hard work of so many steelhead advocates, many of whom support fish and wildlife funding and other conservation programs,” he said.