(UPDATED SEPT. 29, 2011)
Westside salmon anglers and shell fishermen stand to lose big unless Washington lawmakers can patch up the budget over the coming months.
With the proposed closure of two state hatcheries and reduced operations at a third, 8.3 million fewer hatchery Chinook smolts would be produced annually for ocean, bay and Puget Sound fisheries under the most savage of cuts that the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has drawn up at Governor Christine Gregoire’s request to address yet another projected revenue shortfall.
The agency may also slash biologist positions that could affect salmon fishing in the Grays Harbor system and North Coast, and lower oyster and clam harvests and hamper crab and shrimp seasons in Puget Sound.
Up to seven senior managers might be laid off, the Columbia and inland salt waters may go unmonitored for invasive species arriving in cargo ships, and less work would get done on salmon recovery in the future as well.
Scare tactics or not, those measures and others reflect how WDFW would deal with 5 and 10 percent reductions in its General Fund appropriations.
A month or so ago Gregoire, a two-term governor who says she won’t seek a third term, ordered all state agencies to undergo the exercise after revised numbers from budget forecasters showed a shortfall of $1.4 billion in Washington’s coffers over the next two years.
It has since grown to $2 billion and she has called the Legislature back for a special session after Thanksgiving.
And despite last November’s anti-tax mood at the ballot box, on Tuesday the Associated Press reported that Gregoire and other Democrats may be looking into a February special election on a tax package to plug the budget.
As it stands, adjusted for inflation, WDFW says it has lost 41 percent of its General Fund support during this recession, a drop from $110 million in 2007-09 to $69 million in 2011-3. And unless kindly old St. Nicholas leaves a big old wad of cash on the statehouse grounds over the holidays instead of the usual reindeer doots these days, this next round may add incision to insult and injury.
“With all the cuts the last three years, we’re talking about cutting meat and bone out of what’s left,” Director Phil Anderson told me late last week.
In he and Fish & Wildlife Commission chair Miranda Wecker’s 2012 Supplemental Operating Budget Request, he told his counterpart at the Office of Financial Management, “We understand that every agency must do its part in crafting solutions to the current dilemma. However, we find ourselves out of any good options to suggest.”
Those previous cuts, he says, are now manifesting themselves in less supervision of the agency’s 1,440 full-time employees and declines in their productivity — even though some of their work helps prop up the state.
“The fish we produce and the fisheries we manage generate $2.7 billion of economic activity each year,” Anderson wrote to OFM.
Even as he proposes cuts, he also argues they would “directly lead to a loss of jobs” and “less protection of natural resources: fewer staff to protect fish life through Hydraulic Permits, fewer staff to leverage outside grants to recover salmon populations, no staff to detect invasive mussels in ballast water, and less leadership to ensure the department operates efficiently and effectively.”
While some lawmakers may want to instead shave a little more here, a little more there, Anderson says that, “We do not believe we can push any more work onto staff; we need to let go of work functions in this round of reductions.”
There was a preview of that line of thinking last fall when he said that eliminating the Puget Sound steelhead program was one way WDFW could get around the last big budget shortfall.
That and the idea to demobolize a platoon of game wardens were both dropped, and instead WDFW continued to “cut layers of management and support,” “use other funds,” and “reduce programs and service levels” to tighten its budget.
This go-around, because the General Fund does the heavy lifting for the state’s hatchery salmon program and many of those facilities are in Western Washington, that’s naturally where some of the biggest cutting is proposed.
(The fees we sportsmen pay for fishing and hunting licenses are largely protected in the State Wildlife Account, which roughly makes up a quarter of WDFW’s budget. The General Fund contributes another quarter, while local, federal and other moneys account for the other half.)
After talking with employees who may be affected by the latest round of potential cuts over the past few days, Anderson released his 144-page budget request yesterday afternoon to his staffers.
In it, under a 5 percent cut, WDFW would scale back Chinook smolt releases at Hoodsport by 800,000, chum by 12 million and pinks by half a million.
Of course, many of those young salmon will die along their journey to adulthood, but according to WDFW, 2,000 fewer kings would be harvested by sport, tribal and commercial anglers annually in Hood Canal while 60 percent fewer chums would be available for treaty and nontreaty nets.
The Nemah Hatchery south of Raymond and Samish Hatchery north of Mount Vernon would both be eliminated under the 10 percent option.
Killing the former would lead to a 43 percent reduction in king production in Willapa Bay (it sends out 3 million smolts annually) while eliminating the latter would tear a 20 percent hole in Puget Sound hatchery Chinook releases (it produces 4.5 million smolts).
Well-known South Coast salmon angler Tony Floor termed the potential Nemah cut “a dagger to the heart” as most of Willapa Bay’s returning Chinook are hatchery produced, including 32,476 of the 36,768 adults expected back this year.
“WDFW does a poor job, when it comes to identifying priority cuts, with little or no concern about cutting a sport fishery which generates incredible economic input to the Department and the state,” said the fishing affairs director for the Northwest Marine Trade Association.
In an email sent out to all agency staffers (and posted here), Joe Stohr said closure of Nemah would deal a nearly half a million dollar a year blow to the local economy.
Samish kings contribute to various sport fisheries throughout the year, but primarily are caught in summer and fall in Skagit and Bellingham Bays and the Samish River by sportfishers and commercial netters.
The facility also supplies half a million Chinook eggs to the Lummi Tribe.
The trio of hatchery cuts would pare $1.25 million from the budget over the next two years.
In 2009, state-operated hatcheries released 32.5 million mass-marked Chinook smolts into Puget Sound and coastal river systems north of the Columbia. Tribes also raise and release salmon.
At first glance, one potential cut appears to be a “win” for sports, but closing commercial salmon and sturgeon seasons in Grays Harbor would also affect recreational fishing in Southwest Washington because a support biologist and a statistician who work on both groups’ fisheries would be laid off under the 10 percent reduction. That would save $382,000.
Thirty percent fewer clams and oysters would be seeded on Puget Sound beaches under a 5 percent cut that includes laying off one of two shellfish biologists, leading to a 20 percent drop in the harvest within two to three years, according to WDFW. In Hood Canal alone, recreational gatherers harvested 657,000 oysters in 2009. The move would cut over a quarter million dollars the next two years.
And senior regional managers, special assistants to Anderson himself, and upper level game wardens are at risk. Under a 5 percent reduction, five would be laid off while seven would under the harsher cut.
That would save nearly $1.8 million over two years — but also decrease the number of people working with the tribes and other governments on comanaged fisheries, WDFW says.
Overall, around 36 full-time staffers might be laid off and $6.9 million hacked from the two-year budget under th 10 percent reduction. Under the lower amount, the agency would have to do without $3.45 million and 18 fewer employees.
“We’re at the early stages,” says Stohr, pointing to two more upcoming budget forecasts, one before the special legislative session and one after 2012’s short session. “These were meant to be our best advice/recommendations on how to manage those level of cuts. It’s very possible the November forecast may require us to do even more. Then there’s the March forecast.”
Still, even as the department details how it would deal with fewer dollars, it’s also requesting more money.
With fish food rising in cost 20 percent since just January 2010, and tens of millions of hatchery salmon, steelhead, trout and kokanee mouths to feed, WDFW is asking for $180,000 more to make due through mid-2013.
It also wants to move out of its Region 5 office, located in a “high crime” area of Vancouver. According to WDFW, there have been 28 “incident reports” through the first nine months of 2011 alone; a staffer reports lots of gas thefts, syringes in the parking lot, at least one employee’s car being stolen when it was parked on the street, and homeless people camping and peeing on the grounds.
Anderson et al is asking lawmakers for $360,000 to move the office to a building at the Port of Ridgefield in late 2012 and outfit it with phones and other equipment.
And there’s also a request for an additional
$75,000 $150,000 for wolf population monitoring over the next two years ($75,000 per year). That would go towards hiring a field staffer to search for more packs in the Blues, Cascades and Northeast as well as pay for travel, supplies and other items. Funding would come from sales of endangered wildlife license plates.
(The importance of putting radio and GPS collars on wolves to follow their movements was underscored recently by ODFW’s decision to kill off two more members of its Imnaha Pack, which were tracked to the location of a 14th confirmed livestock wolfkill over the past year and a half.)
WDFW proposes creating new wolf and cougar license plates that, it says, would raise $150,000 a year starting in 2013.
I’ll admit, there are a lot of ifs, mights, woulds and coulds in this article, but this deserves close attention from Washington sportsmen.