It's a lesson the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife apparently has yet to learn. The agency claims its mission includes providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities, yet it recently slashed fishing opportunities by cutting a deal with Wild Fish Conservancy — a bully threatening the state with lawsuits.
On March 31 the conservancy sued the department, claiming the state's early-winter hatchery-steelhead program posed a threat to wild steelhead, salmon and bull-trout recovery efforts. DFW denied the accuracy of the claim, stating it has taken many steps based on current science to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild steelhead and other protected fish species.
In spite of that initial resistance, DFW decided it was easier to appease the bully and eliminate the threat of the lawsuit than it was to continue to fight the lawsuit while also facing federal permit delays. DFW agreed to drastically reduce the release of hatchery-raised young steelhead into Puget Sound rivers: instead of 900,000 it will be 180,000 (an 80 percent cut), and no early winter steelhead will be released into Puget Sound rivers other than the Skykomish in 2014.
The move comes at a high price. These juvenile steelhead represent about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead produced by DFW hatcheries in the region, through a state investment of $1 million. It has also been reported that the harvest of these vital resources would generate $7 million to $10 million of economic activity, in addition to the important recreational and cultural benefits full utilization of these hatchery fish would provide Washingtonians.
Without these fish, our communities will see an instant economic effect, as fishermen will no longer be patronizing local businesses and millions of dollars in sales of licenses, gear, fuel and supplies will be lost.
While I understand the need for continuing analysis and improvement of hatchery operations over time, abruptly abandoning the vast majority of the planned steelhead release in the face of this lawsuit is not the answer.
By giving in to bullying, DFW has created an unequitable and unacceptable situation for sport fishermen, tribes and our state's economy as a whole.
True, the federal court agreement will keep the bully at bay for the next 2 ½ years at most, preventing the Wild Fish Conservancy from suing DFW over its Puget Sound hatchery programs during that time. But like any bully, it is likely that the group will simply resume the pursuit of its agenda by threat and lawsuit once that window has closed. And what is to prevent others from seeing the success of this tactic and launching similar bullying strategies of their own?
Forcing taxpayers to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees will only encourage extremist organizations, like the WFC, to continue to sue the state again and again, until they reach their ultimate goal — the elimination of all fish hatcheries.
We can't have government by lawsuit and intimidation. Nor should we allow a relatively small special interest group to control public policy for the entire state.
We've already seen a similar tactic used in a case involving the U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Green Mountain in the Darrington area. In that case another one of these bullies sued the federal government to try forcing the removal of the lookout. They too might have been successful if the tragic Oso mudslide hadn't prompted swift federal action from President Barack Obama and others.
In addition to the future effect of the state backing down in this case, there are still several other questions about this deal that need to be answered:
What is the economic effect that will result from the 12-year agreement on the Skagit River system?
Beyond the Skagit, what other river systems are affected? What will be the economic effect resulting from the agreement on each of these systems?
Under this agreement the tribes, who are the co-managers of our fisheries, lose out on the economic and cultural benefits these fish bring. Were their concerns considered, and were they consulted, prior to this deal being reached?
What justification is there for the state to pay litigation expenses to the conservancy or any other private organization? Couldn't those funds be better used for education, serving our most vulnerable citizens or protecting the environment?
Statewide, how many fishing licenses will no longer be sold, given the effectual end of these fisheries?
These questions point to one undeniable truth: DFW was wrong to roll over to the bully, when the department could have instead stood its ground, continued to work with the National Marine Fisheries Services on a long-term solution, and kept this vital resource for our community and the economy on track.
Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, represents the 39th Legislative District and is the Chair of the Washington State Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee.
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