OLYMPIA — The state Department of Fish & Wildlife has settled a lawsuit with three recreational fishing advocates from Grays Harbor, promising to demystify the regulatory process that governs the way fishing rules are made and enforced on the Twin Harbors.
Tim Hamilton of McCleary joined with Art Holman of Aberdeen and Ron Schweitzer of Elma to file the lawsuit last fall, alleging that state agency officials are allowing commercial gillnetters open season and unfettered access to gobble up salmon to the destruction of fish runs.
They had sought injunctions to shut down the commercial gillnetting season on Willapa Harbor and on Grays Harbor. The judge denied the injunctions, but said the lawsuit could continue.
The biggest win for the advocates is that the state Department of Fish & Wildlife will hire independent fishery scientists to see how often salmon are escaping the gill nets and actually making it upriver to spawn.
Recreational fishing advocates have said for years that commercial gillnetters, who who flank the river with 13 to 19 nets for several days at a time, are preventing a good number of fish from getting up the river to spawn or be caught by recreational fishermen, who pay annual fees to go fishing. Commercial gill nets are granted in excess of 80 percent of the salmon available for harvest each year. The gillnetters are only supposed to catch Coho salmon, but they often catch chum and Chinook, as well, which are supposed to be released back into the wild. But, records provided by Hamilton to back up his claim, that most of those salmon that are thrown back out into the Harbor end up dead and the state agency rarely meets its “escapement” goals in either the Willapa or Grays Harbor of salmon actually heading back upriver.
Meantime, the association for the gillnetters say they provide valuable jobs for the commercial fishing industry and help spur on the economy.
The independent scientists, who will be chosen by both state Fish & Wildlife officials and a non-profit group created the three plaintiffs and “the scientists’ scope of work shall be jointly developed by the parties,” the settlement states.
No one is accusing the Indian tribes, who also use gillnets, of doing anything wrong. The tribes are protected by special treaty.
The settlement calls on the state placing $15,000 into a special fund to pay for the independent review, as well as $15,000 to go to the new non-profit group, which Hamilton says is called Twin Harbor Fish & Wildlife Advocacy.
“What we’ve done is set it up for an outside review, to look over what we’ve been saying all along,” Hamilton said. “We’re encouraged because the new rules being looked at makes sure that the salmon come first. Fish & Wildlife is moving forward with policy saying you will ensure we are getting enough of those fish back so the species survives for the future.”
The dispute the scientists will look at is how many salmon are really making it upriver and how many are just dying at the mouth of the river and are actually just surviving on paper, not in reality.
The settlement states that Fish & Wildlife will create a dedicated website “with a clear presentation of key information,” including catches, spawners and basis of spawner goals and the state agency will improve its pre-season salmon prediction and its in-season indicators on if the salmon are surviving. The non-profit group will work with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife to conduct town hall meetings around the Twin Harbors to better explain its rules and provide recommendations on the mortality of salmon.
“What I want to be able to do is go out and hold a minimum of four local meetings to teach the population on how these seasons are set and the fisheries are managed so they understand the processes and how it all works,” Hamilton said. In addition, the settlement calls for a better management plan to be developed for Willapa Harbor, mirroring the process that will take place for Grays Harbor. The Grays Harbor fisheries watchdog website set up by the Hamilton brothers Tim and Dave, shall continue to exist. Nicknamed Fishileaks, the website is at http://fishingthechehalis.net and has become a go-to-resource for those on the Harbor trying to make sense of the rule-making process being undertaken by the state Fish & Wildlife Commission.
“Rather than prolonging litigation, all parties have agreed to build on a shared interest in enhancing communication between the Department and recreational fishers, ensuring a strong technical foundation for salmon fishery management, and improving the integration of the North of Falcon fishery planning and the rules process,” a joint statement from all of the parties said.
“All parties recognize that salmon play an integral role in the commerce, recreation, and cultural identity of the people of the Pacific Northwest,” the statement adds. “This is particularly true along the Washington coast, where salmon are an economic mainstay for communities, a focal point for tribal life, and an important link between the ocean and interior ecosystems in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. The Agreement reflects a shared interest in the conservation of salmon in these basins and in building support for the salmon resources among commercial fishers, recreational fishers, and outdoor recreation enthusiasts.”