On June 30, 2015, the Willapa Bay Gillnetters Association (WBGA) filed a legal petition in Pacific County Superior Court challenging the new policy for salmon management in Willapa passed by the Fish & Wildlife Commission. The gillnetters association argues that the new policy reduces its members historical profitability on salmon harvest in Willapa Bay and the Commission exceeded its authority when adopting the policy. The state responded defending the actions of the Commission. The Advocacy has filed a motion to intervene to protect its interests and defend the new policy. All of the legal filings are available for viewing and downloading in the column on the right side of this page.
The policy in question was adopted after a long drawn out process of public meetings that incorporated scientific review and indepth analysis into the current state of hatchery production and historical harvest impacts on natural spawning salmon populations in the bay (see review of process here). Conservation was placed as a priority over harvest and avoiding intervention such as ESA reviews was a prioritized goal.
Further, the policy contains guidelines on hatchery operations. The goal was to bring the hatcheries in Willapa Bay into compliance with “Hatchery Reform” standards and follow recommendations provided by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group commonly known as HSRG. Hatchery problems identified in Willapa included large numbers of hatchery Chinook and Coho straying out into the gravel and commingling with natural spawning populations at levels that are recognized to be potentially damaging to the genetics of the natural spawners. The problem with the hatchery on the Naselle was found to be lack of an adequate weir to prevent hatchery fish from moving up river to the spawning grounds. Over at Forks Creek on the Willapa River, Chinook were reluctant to enter the smaller stream and instead were spawning out in the main stem at 4 to 5 times the numbers of natural spawners present.
The problem for the commercial sector that arose during the process was the acknowledgment that the historical commercial net seasons set by the Department targeting hatchery Chinook and Coho resulted in the fleet inflicting up to 90% to 99% of the impacts (killed fish) on natural spawning Chinook and Chum populations. While the seasons set recently by the Department awarded commercial interests a huge advantage over the recreational sector and impressive profits, extensive AHA modeling showed restoration of natural spawning populations in 21 years would require reduced harvest impacts on natural spawners. Since the impacts were overwhelming occurring in the nets, the reductions in harvest had to come from the nets.
Throughout the process, the representatives of the commercial sector opposed any policy language that would somehow reduce commercial catch and reduce profits for gillnetters. The opposition was loud and repeatedly inserted the threat of litigation if the Commission adopted a policy that the gillnetters opposed. Therefore, the filing of the petition did not surprise anyone involved.
The policy was adopted after years of controversy over the commercial seasons set in Willapa by WDFW. Literally thousands of hours were invested by WDFW staff and many in the public that joined with the members of the Advocacy to make trip after trip to attend meetings in Raymond and Olympia. The result was the adoption of a policy that while not perfect, lays out a vision from the Commission that prioritizes conservation over harvest and balanced allocation of harvest between the commercial and recreational sectors (Willapa Bay Salmon Management Policy C-3621)
While the Advocacy members respect the rights of the gillnetters to file a legal challenge, we are not going to “sit idly by” now that a legal petition has been filed. To do so would leave this issue in the hands of the commercial interests that promoted and the Department that adopted, past commercial seasons that led to a steady decline of natural spawning populations to the point where the condition of the runs in Willapa now threaten the citizens of the coastal region with the potential for federal ESA review. The goal of our intervention is to insure that the interests of the Advocacy members along with our neighbors and family members that don’t share the profits of commercial fishing are adequately represented before the courts.