OLYMPIA -- The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, conceding that
its own past practices contributed to the decline of the state's wild salmon runs, today
unveiled its plan to rebuild the runs. Director Bern Shanks released the draft policy
during a tour of the state and encouraged public review and feedback.
Under the plan, the department spells out its own preferred course of action to
rescue the salmon runs, including the creation statewide of local watershed councils.
The councils would work with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state
agencies to determine habitat and other goals needed to protect and perpetuate fish
The department's draft policy also calls for the agency to set strict limits on wild
fish harvests, mark hatchery fish so they can readily be identified from wild ones, and
refrain from planting hatchery fish where they could have a significant impact on wild
The agency's preferred course of action is only one of a number of alternatives
presented in a draft environmental impact statement, which is called the Wild Salmonid
Policy. Salmonids include salmon, grayling, trout, char and whitefish.
"Wild salmon are in crisis. We have talked about troubled fish runs in
Washington state for years. All the compromises have been made and wild salmon
continue their downward spiral," Shanks said. "Wild salmon have been here thousands
of years. They are a heritage as well as a resource. The only ethical response is to shift
this agency's focus to their recovery."
The plan will undergo public scrutiny at 10 meetings scheduled across the state
in April and May. After considering public input, some version of the plan will be
adopted by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, the nine-member citizens
panel that determines department policy.
"It's clear that all of us, from the cities around Puget Sound, to the rancher in
eastern Washington to the commercial fisherman in western Washington, are going to
have to make significant sacrifices to save our troubled fish runs," said Shanks.
"If we don't step up to the plate, if we continue to fail as stewards of our salmon
populations, the federal government will try to do the job for us," Shanks added. "Action
under the Endangered Species Act no longer is hypothetical. Endangered and
threatened listing decisions are being made in 1997."
Four years ago, in response to the state's rapidly declining salmon stocks, state
legislators requested that the Department of Fish and Wildlife prepare a comprehensive
plan to rebuild the stocks. It was due in July 1994.
While work on the plan had occurred, Shanks, upon assuming the director's job
last July following the passage of Referendum 45, ordered the work sped up and the
plan completed as quickly as possible.
According to the Wild Salmonid Policy, salmon stocks in Washington have
declined over the years for a variety of reasons, including overfishing, habitat loss, poor
ocean survival conditions, unwise hatchery practices, and institutional gridlock.
"You can't point the finger at any one cause, but we as an agency must concede
that some of our own management contributed to the problems at hand," Shanks said.
"For instance, we have at times set spawning goals that were too low, and have
managed hatchery fish and wild salmonids as if they were homogeneous fish
"The time has come to reverse these mistakes and treat our wild salmon and
steelhead as our client."
Even though a recent survey indicated less than half of the state's salmon and
steelhead stocks are healthy, the policy states that it is possible to restore salmonid
populations to levels that ensure their survival and allow for fisheries if watersheds and
marine environments are managed properly for fish.
To accomplish this, the department, in its preferred course of action outlined in
the policy, calls for local planning councils to develop watershed-by-watershed plans
that provide for the needs of fish. While the habitat goals developed for each watershed
would be fairly rigid, they could be adapted as conditions change in individual
"These watershed plans, if done correctly, would undoubtedly translate into
important changes in the way we live and work," Shanks said.
"For example, to be successful it's quite possible timber harvests will have to be
reduced, urban growth will have to be managed more carefully, commercial and
recreational fishing practices will have to change, and farmers will have to be more
efficient in their water use."
The preferred course of action also would prohibit the department from planting
hatchery salmon or steelhead or trout where they would have "significant impacts" on
wild stocks, and would require the agency to mark all hatchery fish by removing their
adipose fins, or those fins on the back just forward of the tail. This would allow fishers
and biologists to easily spot hatchery fish so conservation efforts to rebuild wild runs
can be effective.