I attended the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission’s hearing today (Sat. Feb 5) on the increase of allowable wild steelhead by-catch on the lower Columbia River from 2% to 4%. (There was misunderstanding on whether it was an increase to an allowable 6%, the legislation actually reads 4%). I wanted to provide a report of the meeting for those who were not able to attend, and offer applause to all who showed up to defend our wild fish. In the end, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s proposal to increase allowable by-catch was adopted. I will try to offer an objective report and then my biased commentary. Please feel free to correct or amend, those of you who were present, if I’ve gotten something wrong. My intent is not to misrepresent or mis-characterize anyone. The Report It was standing room only, by my count, about 80 people from both sides of the issue, present in the room. 41 people signed up to provide testimony in the 3-minute per appeal format. Guy Norman, SW Washington Regional Director, and Cindy LeFleur, Policy Director, first delivered the proposal and the rationale for the proposal. This included an onscreen powerpoint demonstration of the key points for their decision, and supporting data. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s position was that our state, in cooperation with the state of Oregon, should allow an increase in steelhead by-catch in order to make it easier for commercial (non-tribal) Spring Hatchery Chinook netters to reach their allowed limits. Under current policy, netters must stop fishing as soon as a 2% by-catch is reached. The new legislation would allow up to a 4% by-catch before stopping the fishery. Increased by-catch would only be used if wild steelhead limits exceeded the present 2% benchmark before Chinook goals are met. The rule would be a one-year test. The Department argued that management intent would be to remain at the lowest possible levels, and that 4% or 6% would not be a goal. Furthermore, the department believes that an increase would not register any additional impact on the recovery of wild steelhead. Following their presentation, the commission asked a handful of questions, then began to hear public testimonies. As I followed along (I may have missed a few, or heard a name wrong) the following organizations had representation, and gave the following support or opposition: Recreational Fishing Alliance (opposed) Vancouver Wildlife League (opposed) NW Sportfishers Association (opposed) Flyfishers of Vancouver (opposed) Bellboy Crab Co (supported) Wild Steelhead Coalition (opposed) Southwest Washington Anglers (opposed) Clark County Friends of the Cowlitz (opposed) South Sound Flyfishers (opposed) Recycled Fish (opposed) Washington Trout (opposed) Washington Chapter Trout Unlimited (opposed) Commercial Fishing Advisory Council (supported) Salmon for All (supported) Waikiakum County Doman Fish Company (supported) Fish First (opposed) Also, there were 14 individual anglers who did not cite representation of an organization who were in opposition to the increase. Among them were a commercial developer, someone with a family history of commercial harvest, a member of the Steelhead and Searun Cutthroat Advisory Board, a guide, and others. Eight individual / self-represented commercial fishermen or supporters of commercial fishing also provided commentary. They unanimously supported the increase in by-catch. Following public comment, the commissioners made their comments. Here are a few paraphrased selections: Director Jeff Koenings – felt that much of the “righteous indignation” from opponents of the measure was hypocritical, because data suggests that sport fishermen account for 4-6% of wild steelhead mortality. He also felt that opponents were harsh in their negative characterization of commercial harvesters, and in their language toward the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Other commissioners echoed Koening’s concerns. Commissioner Bob Tack – This is a hard issue. When it’s a close call, I defer to the fish. Commissioner John Hunter – “We’re all in this together.” Everybody questions the science, but it’s limited to your own perception. Commissioner Ken Chew – “Any time there is an impact on a stock…it can be hard to bring it back.” Felt habitat was a key issue, looked favorably on a jump to 6% with hope it will stay to 2%, comfortable with trying it as a test since it’s limited to just one year. Commissioner Pete Schroder – “What if we put all this energy and money into this, and NOAA decides to ignore us? That’s what’s happening here…I would feel uncomfortable taking away a tool from managers.” Commissioner Clyde Mayer believes that the commercial fleet will get their allocation regardless of the increase, and notes that some tools available to managers had not been talked about. Commision Chair Ron Ozument – “This is a resource that is owned by everyone.” He is comfortable that this was proposed only as a management tool, and finds comfort that it is just for one year. He supported WDFW science and their proposal. Commissioner Fred Shoshoni supported the proposal and said that “we must be practical.” Commissioner Pete Schroeder proposed the amendment of the rule to read that by-catch would be managed on a 0% - 4% basis rather than the then-existing language that it would be managed on a 2% - 4% basis. He argued that our goal should be to get as close to zero as possible, and that public would prefer to hear the lower limit in the legislation. That amendment passed with votes from all but Fred Shoshoni, who felt that a 0% goal was impractical, and threatened to tie the hands of staff and fisheries. After other housekeeping and brief comments, the measure was put to vote, and was supported by all commissioners but Commissioner Bob Tack. So it passed, and in the upcoming Chinook fishery on the lower Columbia, the department can choose to allow a by-catch of 4% rather than 2% of the total allotment of wild winter steelhead for this season only. My commentary The science is suspect. We won’t know for sure (if ever) with any accuracy until June, according to Cindy LeFleur, program manager for the WDFW, whether or not the ceiling of 4% was met or exceeded, because the study will be based upon redd counts. There is no accurate way to assess on-the-fly what percentage of the total return is being harvested. Those percentage numbers do not refer to percentage of fish in nets, they refer to percentage of fish that are supposed to spawn in order for wild stock recovery to occur. I was impressed with the quality of arguments and give high praise to all who came out to present an appeal to the commission to reject this measure. Congratulations on a valiant attempt, at least it’s only one year. I am frustrated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife – and NOAA – to base recovery plans on arbitrary numbers – 2%, 4%, 10%, etc. Let’s not base management decision upon rigid, arbitrary policy guidelines that don’t have the capability to be intuitive. Let’s use observation of facts and situations to determine legitimate stewardship of the resource. We have a low-water year and a lower-than-expected forecast for fish return, why would we want to INCREASE allowable fish kill, this year especially? Finally, the nail in the coffin to the credibility of the sport anglers, who comprised the near-unanimous majority of those who objected to this new rule, was that the Wild Steelhead Moratorium did not pass. As a result, sport anglers kill wild steelhead, so who are we to say the commercial fleet can’t do it? This makes me very upset. Those sport anglers who could not give up killing wild steelhead when they had the chance, the mayor of Forks and her contingent, who went to bat to keep killing fish, not only continues to allow for a preposterous sport harvest – it probably is the key element that enabled this detrimental commercial “by catch” harvest. So it has an increased effect. WE MUST ALL STOP KILLING WILD STEELHEAD IF WE WANT TO AID IN THEIR RECOVERY. In conclusion, here is the testimony that I offered to the commission, for the record. Those others of you who have notes on what you shared, please be encouraged to add your appeal to the commission here. We will have to build our case once again for next year, assuming public input is allowed if/when the measure returns in next year’s cycle. ------------------------------------------------------- I’m Teeg Stouffer, Executive Director of Recycled Fish, a nonprofit corporation for improving wakened fisheries and sustaining strong ones. I would first like to thank you for maintaining this forum in which we public can be involved in decision making for our resources. I would further like to thank each of you as individuals for the careful attention you are giving those of us who have come to comment today. With regard to resource management in general, because I believe it speaks directly to the heart of this issue, I want to address the Commission and the Department directly to encourage you to be advocates first and foremost for the long-term health of the resource. Let me clarify that further by saying that I am not speaking to you on behalf of sport fishermen. Nor am I speaking on behalf of commercial or tribal harvesters. I am speaking on behalf of the resource and the users as a whole, and I hope that you’ll also take that kind of holistic approach to management – including this matter specifically. I am certain – and I know that you will agree – that when the fish thrive, so do we, the users of the resource. Allow me be bold and say that when you make short-term decisions that serve any harvest group – sport or commercial – at the expense of the resource, over the long term, nobody wins. I think it’s clear that past performance has borne this out by now. With regard to this specific issue – I strongly oppose an increase of allowable bycatch of endangered wild steelhead. I humbly and respectfully ask that you not advocate for an increase in wild fish bycatch. It is an immutable fact that there is a relatively small number of wild steelhead remaining in the Columbia River System as compared to historical numbers. It is an immutable fact that if we kill more of them, there are fewer capable of reproducing, which hinders their recovery, for which I – and others like me – are still hopeful for. Today, the department has tried to contrast “management intent” against “NOAA limits” but wants “flexibility.” Let me add my voice to the strong majority who says NO INCREASE is acceptable, because ANY INCREASE means FEWER FISH and endangered fish need the BEST CHANCE for RAPID RECOVERY. For the Department of Fish and Wildlife to continue its appeal for a three-fold increase in allowed steelhead mortality is to advocate for short-term gains for commercial anglers, which brings me back to my initial plea. Please make the long-term recovery of this fishery your top priority. Please let nothing stand in the way of it. Please let it be the one issue that “trumps” all other issues, and please know that while there may be kicking and screaming in the short-term, you will be building a legacy of recovery – something for which you will be forever applauded. I have faith that you will act prudently and wisely here. You have my humble gratitude and respect. Thank you.