Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Games the Co-Management Process over 15 Fish. And Wins.
By PATRICK McGann, At Large Editor
If you ever wondered what ‘fighting over the last fish’ would look like, the 2020 North of Falcon outcome is exactly it.
Apparently, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission wants war. Maybe it’s not all the tribes. Maybe it’s just a bunch of crazy radicals within the commission. It makes no difference. The tribes’ overreach in this year’s North of Falcon negotiations leaves little doubt. And frankly, little room for maneuver.
This year’s NOF can only be called a bloody slaughter and a demeaning capitulation. The rationale is — and surely intended to be — a scalding humiliation of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington’s sportfishers and Washington state itself.
I can’t imagine being Kelly Susewind right now. The WDFW director had to put on his sad face and look Puget Sound salmon anglers in the eye and tell them once again, “We had some tough decisions to make this year.” And blah-blah, conservation, opportunities, that is, whatever opportunities … peace in our time.
In a nutshell we lost an entire blackmouth season for no good reason and we have a six week summer season to catch two weeks’ worth of a first ever inside quota. Our negotiators managed to win us some token fisheries, but let’s face it, there are enemy tanks on the Champs-Élysées. And the rationale, the casus belli, is exactly what you’d expect from an aggressor who is holding all the cards. This is because of poor runs, right? Climate change? The blob? Not really. What the tribes are saying is essentially, we’re going to screw you because you’re pussies and because you’re pussies, we can, and because we can, we will.
This comes as a bitter disappointment to me, personally. I have seen what can happen when the tribes and sportfishing community work together toward a common goal. I’ve seen it on the Columbia and its tributaries. I’ve seen it in hatchery operations and cooperative working relationships between biologists and fishery managers. Such a thing is possible and desirable and it should be the goal on the west side of the Cascades as well. Anyone who’s tried to accomplish the same thing on this side of mountains must feel deeply discouraged right now. I know I do. Too bad. Hate wins again.
The immediate problem boils down to a handshake deal made by WDFW’s Jim Scott. Apparently neither Scott nor Susewind, nor anyone else at the WDFW, thought it was a big deal, not big enough to involve the public or perhaps the Commission? It involves the Stillaguamish River and its chinook.
The Stilly chinook are in bad shape due to habitat damage (mostly timber harvest) that has created flow conditions that has made spawning problematic especially on the North Fork. It’s a complicated situation and a horrible one. You can read all about it in the “Technical Assessment and Recommendation for Chinook Salman Recovery in the Stillaguamish Watershed” an enlightening document. The run is now dependent on hatchery propagation and will be until the flow conditions are fixed. Just so you know, the habitat problem has been targeted for 20 years. And in that time, the situation has deteriorated. But it’s a good thing there is a plan.
The tribe is operating its hatchery as a conservation/supplementation hatchery intended to help wild fish. The Stillaguamish Tribe can run its hatchery any way it wants as long as it gets approval through the Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan. They have a proposal before NMFS right now. It’s another enlightening document.
They decide how many fish they are going to release, that is, how many less than their maximum they are going to release. However, sometimes they can’t release their maximum because not enough wild broodstock return to the river. NMFS has determined that there is no significant difference genetically between the hatchery reared fish and the wild fish, so why they don’t then use a few returning hatchery fish to hit their maximums? I don’t know. Domestication I suppose. Their maximums are 220,000 sub-yearlings. They rarely achieve that.
And there are of course all kinds of decisions they can make. For example how many won’t be run through the hatchery but will be fertilized eggs seeded in the tributaries.
Anyway, the Stillaguamish want to cap total harvest of their hatchery fish to 12% of the total return. Scott apparently did some math in his head and agreed. What’s the harm, right? The first year, good ol’ arithmetic was fine, but then … things went common core in a hurry. Seizing on an anomaly that appeared in the run projection modeling, the Stillaguamish tribe freaked about potential incidental harvest of their 2020 return and demanded that the winter blackmouth season in 2021 be closed. They demanded huge cuts in the summer Strait and North Sound fisheries. All because of that 12% harvest. They demanded that these Draconian cuts to the 2020 and 2021 seasons over 15 fish. Fifteen.
Simultaneously, after taking off their shoes and pounding them on the podium, they announced they were going to increase their harvest by a factor of three, from last year’s 15 fish to this year’s 45. In exchange for all three Seattle virgins thrown into the volcano, they dropped that to 30.
So let’s add this up. The tribe has flexibility in the number of fish they produce. They have flexibility in how they run their hatchery. They claim flexibility in how many fish they can harvest. And they insist that the state be held to a rigid 12%. And the WDFW agreed to that? In a deal that was probably made over the hood of a car? Did they even try?
The WDFW tried. It offered to allow no fin clipping on Stillaguamish hatchery fish, just nose tags, so that these fish which are intended to breed with wild spawning fish, which are for all intents and purposes identical to the Stilly wild fish, would be treated in incidental fisheries as if they were naturally spawned. The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that not clipping the adipose fin on the Stilly hatchery fish would return 43 more spawners to the Stillaguamish system. And the tribe refused.
The WDFW can join in on the Stillaguamish hatchery project — NMFS contends that increasing production at the Stillaguamish hatcheries would have a strong positive effect on natural production in the river. The Stillaguamish refused.
Washington (and NMFS) offered to clip a different fin. Nope. Washington offered a 28” minimum size on winter blackmouth. Nope. A 26” minimum on winter blackmouth with a couple more weeks in the summer fishery. Nope. A 25” minimum size and a couple more weeks in the summer fishery. Nope. Washington offered to accept the 15% hooking mortality. Nope. A two fish limit going to one fish. Nope. We can get Canada to help out on their wanding of hatchery fish. Nope.
The ONLY thing acceptable to the Stillaguamish is that the state restrict its sport harvest, including hook mortality, to a total of 15 of their fish. Fifteen fish.
See? Obviously they aren’t really concerned about conservation. They are concerned about something else. They have this 12% handshake and they think it’s a hammer and they’re using it. Why won’t they tell us what it is they want? Well, as a matter of fact they did.
Capt. Brett Rosson, owner of the largest charter operation in the San Juan Islands and a member of the Sportfishing Advisory Group is hopping mad. He’s the organizer of the highly popular AM/CAN Salmon Derby and has been using the AM/CAN Facebook page to sound off. He told me, “They’re out for blood. They want winter blackmouth closed. Period. They want us off the water in Area 7 [San Juan Islands]. They came right out and told us that at the beginning of negotiations. They had no intention of negotiating in good faith. This was the Stillaguamish Tribe supported unanimously by the other tribes and the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission. They outlined a naked agenda this year.”
It doesn’t get any plainer than that. The Indians don’t just want to secure their share of the fish. They’re not just making a fish grab. The only possible conclusion is that they want to prohibit non-tribal members from fishing … at all. And this is the agenda driving their NOF negotiations and their role as co-manager of Puget Sound salmon. These are our so-called “co-managers.”
If someone other than I had written that last paragraph I would dismiss it as breathless hyperbole. God knows I’ve read and edited out plenty of it. But no. This is not what we THINK they want. This is what they came out and SAID they want. And this is exactly what the WDFW is giving them.
The tribal justification for this is culture. The Stillaguamish in particular and who knows, maybe all the tribes, have a “cultural” problem with releasing fish. The way they say it is, “Indians don’t play with fish.” Stop laughing, I’m serious. Yes, I think all gill-netters share that cultural sensitivity. This takes “cultural appropriation” and crams it up … a whole new level, no?
I’ve always known the tribes have had a problem with Frank Haw’s blackmouth program. He discovered that if you keep chinook in the hatchery for a few weeks longer than you keep the others, they won’t go out to sea and will instead spend their entire lives in Puget Sound. And that has been a huge boon to salmon fishing opportunity for the people of Washington, a boost to boat sales and boat building, a boost to marinas, motor repair shops, tackle shops and so forth. Being able to fish all year makes it easier to invest in all the gear you need for salmon fishing. The fishery is a lynch pin to Washington state sportfishing. What a convenient place to launch an attack.
The Stillaguamish objection to blackmouth fishing is based, they say, on interaction between the blackmouth fishery and out-migrating Silly hatchery fish. There is no interaction except occasional aberrant holdovers. The Stilly fish are gone by October. The traditional blackmouth fisheries are December to April. No one knows this better than the WDFW.
So back to Rosson and others of the Sport Fishing Advisory Group I’ve talked with. At NOF, they were literally presented with the choice between accepting these surrender conditions or walk out and shut everything down … over 15 fish.
It’s one thing to be all revved up on Bud in a bar with the boys and say, “Shut ‘er down!” And it’s another thing to have your business shut down.
“If we were ever to have a fight with somebody who wanted one, this was the year to do it,” said Rosson. Amen. And clearly the Indians are pushing the state into a fight. The problem is, the state won’t fight. And the Indians know it. You lose a week here and a couple of inch minimum there, and then another week, then a couple thousand off your quota, then you play the one fish/two fish game, then you get Sunday’s only, then you lose the blackmouth season, then you lose Sudetenland and then Czechoslovakia, then Poland, then the Philippines then Crimea …
Here’s where a lot of unkind words usually come out directed at Susewind. What we’d like is for him to be that little Chinese guy who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. Or maybe Josey Wales defending the homestead. Susewind should stand up and dig in and say, ‘What the Indians are doing ain’t right. And we need to stop this right here and right now. The Indians have a receipt for 50% of the fish, and that means we do too.’
The problem is Jay Inslee won’t back him up on that.
I like Jay Inslee. I think he’s been a pretty good governor over all. I like my politicians boring and wooden and kind of dull and able to speak in complete sentences. I like a governor that you hardly know is there.
Look, Inslee’s not in love with Indians. He knows they can be just as big of assholes as any of the sportsmen. And he’s no more afraid of them than he is of us. Even if every member of the Stillaguamish tribe voted against him, that’s less than 300 votes. What Inslee is afraid of is Seattle’s (and Evergreen College’s) social justice warriors.
To be blunt, Susewind knows that Inslee won’t back him up in a fight against the tribes. And the Indians know that too. Susewind doesn’t have a chance. And the Indians know that too. If it comes down to a fight with the Indians or throwing the sportfishing community under the bus, I’m pretty sure how the Democratic Party of Washington is going to go, and by all odds, Inslee is going to go with the party. And the tribes know that.
That’s why Inslee is the only one who can solve this problem. He governed on the pandemic when there was no federal governance. He has to do the same thing on the criminal mismanagement of Puget Sound chinook which is, right now, 100% due to tribal abuse of the NMFS ESA permitting process and game playing by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
We’re between a rock and a hard place. A governor who won’t address the problem because he’s afraid of a few radicals. A WDFW director who really needs to fall on his sword at this point but who won’t. Co-managers of this critical resource who have given up any pretense of cooperation.
This fishery this year is an injustice. It’s an insult. It’s an assault. It’s literally worse than a complete angry closure.