Willapa Bay Salmon Management Policy

Willapa Bay Salmon Management Policy

 

The founders of the Advocacy filed a legal challenge to the 2013 commercial seasons set for Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.  The challenge was settled out of court with the Department of Fish & Wildlife.  One of the conditions of the settlement was the Director of WDFW would petition the Fish & Wildlife Commission seeking permission to review fisheries management in Willapa Bay and it tributaries.  The Commission agreed.

A process was adopted wherein a series of public workshops and meetings of newly formed "Ad Hoc Committee" with participants appointed by Director were held in Raymond, WA from October 2014 through January 2015.  Advocacy President Tim Hamilton served on the Ad Hoc and the other members of the Advocacy joined with a large group of citizens that made the drive to Raymond repeatedly.  As this effort proceeded, all traveled to Olympia numerous times for update presentations to the Commission members themselves.  On June 13, 2015, the Commission passed the "Willapa Bay Salmon Management Policy" (C-3622).

During the extensive process, state of the art fisheries modeling (AHA) and other types of analysis were conducted by WDFW staff.  The analysis, research, modeling, and meeting agendas were posted on the WDFW website in a timely fashion for all the public to view (here).  Numerous drafts of the policy were produced and the public was invited to provide comments to the WDFW Commission either in writing, via email or in person during Commission meetings held in Olympia.

Pacific County has not experienced the level of population growth and human activity impacts on habitat that has occurred in other regions of the state.  According to the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, Willapa Bay is ".....one of the most pristine estuaries in the United States." If not habitat, then what is it that caused the decline in the natural spawning salmon populations?

Review of the data provided by the Department during the process confirmed what many in the public had been pointing to for over a decade.  It became clear that harvest seasons in the past had dramatically reduced the number of natural spawning Chinook and Chum populations in Willapa Bay.  As an example, the chart below shows returning natural spawning Chinook to North River steadily declined to less than 11% of the stream's spawner capacity by 2013.  In this case, loss of habitat is clearly not the primary issue when 89% is being left unused.

The research and analysis conducted during the process also identified the historical harvest rate being applied to the natural origin spawners (NOS) by the different sectors i.e. commercial nets, freshwater recreational and marine recreational.  Data provided by WDFW clearly showed the commercial sector was historically granted preferential seasons over the recreational sector.  Due to the non-selective nature of gillnets, the commercial seasons applied the greatest harvest impact onto the declining natural origin spawners.  As an example, the chart below produced by the Advocacy from data supplied by the Department shows the seasons set in 2014 were expected to result in the commercial sector applying 89.8% of the impacts (kills) on natural origin Chinook, 83.4% of NOS Coho, and 93.5% of NOS Chum.  

 An evolutionary significant unit, or ESU, of Pacific salmon is considered to be a "distinct population segment" and thus a "species" under the Endangered Species Act.  One of the stated goals of the newly adopted policy is to avoid ESA designation for natural spawning stocks in the Coastal ESU which includes Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor, and the rivers along the north coast.   In 1998, a review by NOAA found three streams were declining in the ESU.  A comparison analysis by the Department during the Ad Hoc and public meeting process showed what has happened since NOAA's last assessment in 1998.  By 2015, the chart below produced by the Department showed all but three streams used to measure the ESU performance were in long term decline and experiencing similar downward trends for Chinook as those flowing into Willapa Bay.  Quickly, all could see that the stocks outside of Willapa Bay could not "make up for" the decline occurring in Willapa.  To the contrary, a continuing decline in Willapa presented the risk the Bay could become a trigger for intervention throughout the entire ESU.

 

Editorial Note-  While some will continue to "wear blinders", it is easy for reasonable people to understand why a majority of the members of the Fish & Wildlife Commission felt compelled to adopt a policy directed at managing for conservation and restoration of natural spawning populations in Willapa Bay.  The Advocacy believes the Department of Fish & Wildlife's historical approach of fishing to the point the feds or courts intervene is simply contrary to common sense.  It is also irresponsible and unfair to the citizens (most of which don't even fish) that live on streams and shorelines from the Willapa north to Neah Bay that will likewise feel the pain if salmon in the Coastal ESU were to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.  While commercial salmon fishing is economically and culturally important to a small segment of the local population, salmon gillnetting in the Willapa is less than 1% of the economic values of commercial shell fishing, crabbing and other marine activities occurring in Pacific County. Placing 99% at risk in an attempt to prop up 1% is not only mathematically unsound, it is also inappropriate public policy.  Especially on the coast where Pacific and Grays Harbor suffer from amongest the highest unemployment rates found in Washington state.  The Advocacy commends the Commission for its action.

 Willapa Bay Gillnetters Association files legal challenge to Willapa Bay Policy

The WBGA has filed a legal challenge to the Willapa Bay Salmon Management Policy.  The Advocacy has filed a motion to intervene to represent and protect the interests of the Advocacy members and others in the public that have invested significant time and resources in the process or face the risk of economic adversity if the policy is overturned by the courts.  Read more about the litigation on the "Legal Issues" page of this web site.