Talk is swirling this week through the state’s outdoor community about Monday’s announcement that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings is resigning, effective Dec. 11. And many fish/hunt activists feel that the move is not entirely of Koenings’ own volition.
In a late special meeting Monday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, the citizen group appointed by the Governor to oversee department policy, voted to accept Koenings’ resignation and named deputy director Phil Anderson interim director. The commission will mount a nationwide search for a new director after the first of the year, said commission chair Jerry Gutzwiler.
In what amounts to “damning by faint praise,” Gutzwiler said only that “The commission is extremely grateful to Dr. Koenings for his service and contributions as director of the department for the past 10 years.”
The lack of anything more would seem to indicate what a number of leaders of the state’s outdoor community have been saying for a long time: friction between the commission and the governor on one side, and Koenings and a small core of pro-commercial fishing members of the state legislature on the other, was making the director’s tenure increasingly problematic.
Koenings’ tenure has been the longest in the agency’s history. He was hired as director in January 1999, after working as an Alaska fisheries manager and a special assistant to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He holds a doctorate in natural resources, a master’s degree in water resources, and a bachelor’s degree in fisheries, all from the University of Michigan. His background in commercial fishing in Alaska was always at the back of the minds of Washington recreational fishing activists, and the feeling that he was net-fishing oriented and wasn’t likely to change, became an ever-larger issue.
“This has been brewing for at least a couple of years,” said Tony Floor, activist, ex-state employee, and currently the fishing director for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, “but it came to a head around the election.”
A tight gubernatorial race and ever-increasing clout by a better-organized recreational fishing community led to the appearance of Governor Gregoire on Nov. 1, four days before the election, on KJR AM’s Saturday morning outdoor talk show, Northwest Wild Country.
Co-host Tom Nelson of Lake Stevens, the interviewer on that occasion, said he was impressed that Gregoire “would actually come right out and say that we have to go to work now to move assets toward recreational fishing, as an economic benefit for more people and for the whole state.
“The people in power know that studies have shown, over and over, the far higher economic value to the state of sport-caught fish versus net-caught fish,” Nelson said, “but it was refreshing to hear the governor acknowledge that fact.”
Nelson said the interview is available to the public. Go to the show’s Web site, nwwildcountry.com, where there are also blogs discussing the import of the interview, or to Nelson’s own Web site, fishskagit.com, then click the link to KJR AM’s site, then the audio link, and then click on the show.
In a release, Koenings said he is proud of his record of working for wild salmon, rebuilding relationships with tribal resource co-managers, bringing a scientific focus to state fish and wildlife management, and improving the department’s business practices.
Most recently, Koenings chaired negotiations on a new, 10-year chinook harvest agreement under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, requiring British Columbia and Alaska to reduce harvest of Washington-bred chinook by a million fish over the next 10 years. When implemented in 2009, the agreement will return many more salmon to state spawning grounds to take advantage of numerous estuarine and freshwater habitat restoration projects throughout the state.
All those additional chinook will only benefit recreational salmon fishermen in Puget Sound if near-total fin-clipping of hatchery chinook is put in place and there’s a substantial increase in “selective” salmon fishing seasons for hatchery fish.
According to Floor, that has been one of the major issues between Koenings and sportfishing leadership.
“I think the leaders of the recreational fishing community were successful in communicating to the commission and the governor Koenings’ refusal to move the department more toward the recreational side — more specifically his lack of progress toward selective salmon fisheries,” Floor said. “There’s too much gillnetting in Washington waters, and when the tribes took 70 percent of the hatchery chinook headed back to Puget Sound recently, the director looked the other way.”
The director showed an inability, or lack of inclination, to elevate the importance of recreational fishing in Washington, Floor said, and the governor recognized that in her radio interview prior to the election.
“That interview was a catalyst for the sportfishing leadership,” he said. “It was apparent to everyone Koenings wouldn’t or couldn’t take us where we want to go in this state.”
The effort to change direction hasn’t been easy, according to Floor. “Koenings has had enormous support from the commercial and tribal interests,” he said.
His interim replacement, Phil Anderson, is a resident of Westport, where he owned and operated a salmon charter before going to Olympia as a charter industry representative in the early 1990s. He joined the state staff in 1994 and worked his way up the ladder to become deputy director for resource policy in July of last year.
But just because he comes from a recreational fishing background, he isn’t necessarily more oriented toward increased recreational use of the resource, several sportfishing sources said. And even if he is, he will be too busy with fiscal problems to deal with fishing policy changes, Floor said.
“I anticipate the commission will take six months to make a national search and hire someone,” Floor said, “and Phil will be wrestling with the upcoming department budget cut of $40 million. The problems that presents will override any short-term changes in policy, but once the budget woes have been dealt with and a new director is in place, then we can get on with increasing seasons, increasing our time on the water, improving selective fisheries, and doing away with glaring harvest imbalances in Puget Sound salmon, crab and shrimp fisheries.
“Those are all changes we’re looking for in the future,” Floor said. “Listen to the governor’s interview.”
RAZOR CLAMS: Assuming approval by state health officials, the next coastal razor clam dig will take place Dec. 11-14 on Copalis and Mocrocks beaches, and Dec. 12-14 on Long Beach and Twin Harbors beaches. Kalaloch remains closed. Tides are: Dec. 11, minus 1.1 feet at 5:23 p.m.; Dec. 12, minus 1.5 feet at 6:13 p.m.; Dec. 13, minus 1.6 feet at 7:02 p.m.; and Dec. 14, minus 1.4 feet at 7:50 p.m.
STEELHEAD: Guide John Thomas (email@example.com) said the Skykomish was high and dirty over the weekend, with only 8 to 10 inches visibility below the Sultan, and about a foot above. With relatively dry weather conditions forecast for the rest of this week, the weekend could provide decent water and a pretty fair shot at some fresh winter steelhead.
Thomas said the Reiter Ponds area has provided the best early fishing — no surprise to anyone — and remains the best bet, given the current water conditions. Work a pink, orange or red jig, tipped with shrimp, under a float, or drift Corkies and yarn along the current seams.
SALMON: Marine Area 10 remains open for two clipped chinook, and fishing off Shilshole and northward has been pretty good. State checks at the Shilshole ramp on Sunday showed 97 fishermen with 25 blackmouth, four coho, and one chum.
SMELT: Cornet Bay is still putting out some pretty good smelt jigging at the Deception Pass State Park pier. Checks there on Saturday tallied 124 smelt for 11 fishers. Use most any rod and reel, a white Gamakatsu jig, and bring a bucket. No license required if you don’t intend to keep herring.
WATERFOWL: Warm, mild fall weather has kept ducks rafted on the big water, said state waterfowl manager Don Kraege, and what should be prime time for duck hunters has been slow. Look for better shooting during and after the next big storm front, he said.