He lasted more than 30 years in wildlife management with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, but just three as director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Dr. Jim Unsworth has resigned his position, effective Feb. 7.
“It’s now time for me to pursue other professional and personal goals in natural resource management,” Unsworth wrote in a letter last week to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
That’s the usual rationale given by departing management-level professionals, of course, but a lot of outdoor-oriented folks wonder whether Dr. Unsworth left on his own or was given the boot — particularly in light of the flak he received, and would continue to receive, over the controversial Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan, which was put together on his watch.
“Make no mistake, he was allowed to quit,” said Tom Nelson, sportfishing advocate and host of “The Outdoor Line” on 710 ESPN radio. “The minute he signed the 10-year chinook harvest plan, he may as well have signed his resignation at the same time.”
Puget Sound chinook are managed under the Endangered Species Act, and any fishery in the Sound that could impact chinook must be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A long-range plan was constructed by the tribes and the state, the two co-managers of the resource, and submitted to the feds on Dec 1, 2017. It was almost immediately turned down by NOAA as insufficient, and a revised plan is in the process of being crafted.
The flak comes primarily over the secrecy in which the plan was built. Not only was the public not made aware of its progress, but Unsworth apparently decided not to allow even his own Commission access to the process. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is the nine-member citizen panel appointed by the governor basically to keep an eye on what the Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing. The Commission was not happy when presented with a fully formed — and flawed — plan, and neither was the sportfishing public.
Patrick McGann, writing in the February-March issue of the Salmon & Steelhead Journal, said hooking mortality is one of the major issues in the “secret” 10-year plan. There’s a wide range of hook mortality percentages available in the literature, and the temptation to use “voodoo” statistics is there.
“The point is,” McGann writes, “that this is just one can of worms that gets opened in the dark of secrecy.”
The commission advised state fishery managers to strike a better balance between conservation and harvest opportunities as they work with the tribes to revise the plan.
Feeling there was no leadership in this process, the commission stepped up. Mitigation tools the commission asked the Department of Fish and Wildlife to explore included increasing habitat restoration efforts; improving hatchery operations, including increasing production to support salmon recovery efforts; and reducing populations of predators such as seals and sea lions.
Seals now take more salmon than recreational and commercial fisheries combined.
“Steller sea lions are being taken off the endangered list,” Nelson said, “which will allow the states more flexibility in their management.”
NOAA also is pushing chinook restoration to provide a critical diet element for the south Sound orca pod. That should add a little more leniency, perhaps, to NOAA decisions on the 10-year plan.
Commissioner Don McIsaac has asked the governor for $5 million for a conservation hatchery on the Stillaguamish, along with habitat improvement, Nelson said. A “conservation” hatchery would use wild-stock chinook native to the specific river, to aid recovery. Stillaguamish and Snohomish wild chinook stocks are at precarious levels, and are driving much of the very restrictive salmon fishing regulations in the north Sound and farther up the line. Nelson said a conservation hatchery on the Stilly, if it comes about, would be “one of the most significant moves in fisheries management in recent memory.”
“The director didn’t provide these options to his staff,” Nelson said, “so the commission did. With an interim director in place for the start of the North of Falcon salmon season-setting process, the commission has come to the fore and will, I’m sure, keep state negotiators on a very short leash.”
Meanwhile, co-manager negotiations are ongoing to guide this summer’s salmon fisheries. The commission has asked state fishery managers to discuss the possibility of using last year’s regulations as a basis for this year’s planning. That could make the process more timely, and perhaps eliminate some of the stand-off mentality that disrupted summer sportfishing seasons the past couple of years.
The Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan, along with feedback from NOAA, is available on Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/fisheries/chinook.