WDFW and stakeholders are beginning to hold conversations about how to reopen fishing and hunting in Washington, where it has been closed since late March due to Governor Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that runs through at least May 4.
Agency Fish Program Manager Kelly Cunningham this morning confirmed that staffers spoke with guides and members of other outdoor industries on Tuesday night, a positive first step towards a more concrete outline for getting our favorite recreational activities going again.
But he also advised that reopening boils down to three basic tenets:
“The emphasis is on: flexibility in the order; access restored; and coordination with local jurisdictions,” Cunningham said. “The last thing we want to do is have to close something because a local health officer was blindsided.”
The potential good news comes as irate sportsmen have also moved from launching myriad online petitions and besieging WDFW’s Facebook page to planning an angler protest at a Tri-Cities park this Saturday.
“Over the weekend there were houseboats, kayakers, paddleboards you name it, they were all out and able to enjoy the sun but I was out there with my two-year-old and I couldn’t give him a fishing pole because he would have been a criminal,” organizer Ben Hanes told KEPR-TV about what inspired him to take action.
John Kruse, a Wenatchee-based outdoor show host, will broadcast a similar message on stations carrying American Outdoors Radio this weekend.
“This isn’t meant to disparage boaters; I’m glad you’re getting out there. It’s simply an observation about how illogical this is since boating is legal but fishing from the same boat is not and the spread of the coronavirus is equal under both scenarios,” Kruse stated in a five-minute segment released earlier this week.
During it, Kruse said that a spokeswoman told him WDFW doesn’t have the authority to restrict boating — it regulates fishing and hunting, plain and simple — nor can the agency shut down boat ramps that it doesn’t own.
Cunningham said he gets the frustration.
“I understand. People are unhappy. Hell, I’m an avid angler too. It would’ve been nice to blow off steam, but that’s not where we’re at,” he said.
He says that the initial fishing closure was sparked in part by some anglers not heeding the governor’s social distancing directive, meant to slow the spread of coronavirus transmission between people and communities.
That monthlong-plus effort now appears to be working, if infection rates and flattening case and death curves are any indication.
The Tri-Cities Herald‘s editorial board also came out with an opinion yesterday against the planned protest, saying, “There is a risk that instead of proving anglers can keep their distance from one another, the event will show just the opposite. It would only take a few overzealous characters to ruin the message Hanes and others are trying to send to state officials — and that would be a shame.”
Indeed, the conversation has already begun to turn from isolation to a gradual, phased reopening of society, but the question is how to do it when it comes to fishing and hunting?
Cunningham provided some more details on the three aforementioned overarching tenets.
“We’ve got to have flexibility within the governor’s stay-home order,” he said.
Whether the order needs to be lifted or modified he couldn’t say, but given WDFW being “squarely aligned” with it, “Unless something changes on that front, I think we are where we are.”
“Second, we need to have places to send people so they can spread out,” Cunningham said.
With numerous accesses controlled by counties, federal agencies, utility districts and tribes – for example, Neah Bay and La Push, which means there is essentially just a single launch on the entire Washington coast to access the best halibut grounds – that reduces the options, leaving WDFW focusing on working with the Department of Natural Resources and State Parks.
“At a minimum we need the ‘state family’ to open things,” Cunningham said.
Third, coordination with public health authorities is key to prevent local facilities from potentially being overwhelmed with infections, he said.
“Those are the three things we need to see. Then, how do we open up?” Cunningham asked.
A post yesterday by angler Doug St. Denis of the Washington State Guides Association offers some insights into Tuesday’s discussions, including an open-it-all-at-once approach to prevent overcrowding but with some form of local restrictions, as well as a laundry list of how fishing guides might modify and phase-in their operations to maintain distancing on board their boats.
On the hunting side, Rachel Voss of the state Mule Deer Foundation reported that it had been a “very productive call” and things were not as complex for reopening as with fishing.
“We discussed similar situations on the hunting side,” she posted on Fish Hunt Northwest’s share of the guides association’s writeup. “What will an opener look like? How can hunters get the most out of their remaining spring bear and turkey seasons? How far out could we allow season extensions after the initial opener to maximize hunter opportunities? (Knowing that we can’t go TOO far on turkey due to hen pressure and poults). Where can we slide in a youth turkey special two days … since they missed their youth weekend??”
Cunningham said a benefit of opening everything at once was that it would force anglers to make tough choices between opportunities and “avoid a gold rush” to certain high-value fisheries.
But those that are operated under quotas would probably need a special OK from the governor’s office because required monitoring means staffers need to be at docks to record anglers’ catches.
For the time being, as residents stay at home and bide their time on puzzles, gardening and whatnot, WDFW staffers are working on the puzzle that is what spring and summer fisheries and hunts will look like.
“We want to open as quickly as we can,” Cunningham assured. “We have to have our ducks in a row when we do it.”