Commissioners dialogue with regional director
March 21, 2019
Wahkiakum County commissioners and local residents had a chance Tuesday to discuss fish and wildlife issues with Kessina Lee, the new regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Lee visited the board of commissioners meeting for a workshop discussion that focused on management of salmon and strayed into department politics.
Commissioner Mike Backman commented that it's difficult to have good communication with the agency. Different parts of the agency, such as biologists and habitat managers, don't communicate well with each other, and, outside a fish and wildlife commission meeting, it's hard for the public to communicate with department managers.
"We just want more local involvement in the process," Backman said.
The agency is large, and it reacts slowly to changes in conditions, he added. For example, biologists predicted a poor smelt run this year, and no commercial or recreational fisheries were scheduled. However, a strong run appeared in the past two weeks, and the department couldn't adjust to allow some harvest, leading to an economic loss to Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties.
Lee agreed the agency has internal communication problems and is slow to react.
"It was painful for our smelt people," she commented, adding that the office has a small staff and a very small budget.
Backman suggested the department work with local residents to install fish hatch boxes in local streams to boost salmon runs.
"In general, we can talk about egg boxes," Lee said. "But at a certain point, there might be too much competition with other fish [that is, more individual fish than a location can support]."
She added that egg boxes might work for chum and fall chinook varieties, but not for steelhead or coho salmon.
Commercial fisherman Kent Martin covered a range of fishery management issues. He pointed out that the five-year program with goals of developing alternative commercial gear and off channel fishing areas for the commercial fleet had failed.
He said he is pleased with "the dramatic turnaround" by department management and the fish and wildlife commission which recently acknowledged the program had failed and also stated commercial fisheries are a part of the whole management picture.
"The department has never said, ‘There are consequences: If you don't have commercial fisheries to mop these fish up, there will be no fish,'" he said.
Hatcheries produce fish to mitigate for dam impacts; the recreational anglers' catch leaves many salmon in the river, and with the commercial catch reduced to give a sport priority, many salmon intended for harvest aren't caught.
This, Martin said, leaves managers feeling they don't need to maintain the production, and a reduction in production would impact both commercial and recreation fishers.
"They're saying, ‘Why are we raising fish that no one is catching?'" he said.
Martin also commented that the development of alternative gear has been poorly handled. For example, some commercial fishers have invested over $100,000 in seining gear that won't be used for fishing.
The department has many challenges, Lee said. Low funding is a challenge on many fronts; fishery management is constrained by federal mandates, and communication is a challenge.
The department also acknowledges the need for a viable commercial industry.
"We need to have tools to catch fish," she said, "such as gillnets, traps; let's hear all the options."