OLYMPIA—If Washington's troubled wild salmon stocks are going to be recovered, attention must focus not on harvest practices but on how to apply the best science available to restore the freshwater habitat salmon need to spawn.
That was the reaction Wednesday from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Dr. Jeff Koenings after the defeat of Initiative 696, which would have banned the use of most nets by commercial fishers in Washington waters.
The initiative, if it had passed, would have affected an estimated 1,800 commercial fishers licensed by WDFW to use nets in Washington waters. Tribal commercial fishers and recreational fishers would have been unaffected by the measure.
"We must not be fooled into wasting our precious time on old, tired arguments that focus on allocation, on who gets what fish and how, " Koenings said. "We must move beyond one group declaring war on another group, and instead direct our energies toward the major issue at hand. And that boils down to this: How are we going to apply the best science we have to restore critical salmon habitat on a statewide basis."
As a state employee, Koenings was prohibited from taking a public position on Initiative 696 prior to the vote. In the eleven months since he became WDFW director, however, he has consistently urged those involved in salmon recovery efforts not to make commercial or recreational fishers the scapegoats.
"All fishers, both commercial and recreational, have made substantial sacrifices over the years in the name of salmon recovery-and they will continue to do so," Koenings said Wednesday. "But it's time all of us recognize that unless we tackle in earnest the habitat part of the equation, it won't matter what we do to harvest and hatchery practices."
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged under state law with managing harvest and hatchery practices throughout the state. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizen's panel appointed by the Governor, sets policy for the agency.
During the past decade the department and tribes, working closely with the federal government, commercial and recreational fishers and others, has greatly reduced or closed some fisheries to conserve weak wild stocks. Hatchery practices have also been modified with the same goal in mind.
Despite these conservation practices, some wild salmon runs have dwindled as critical freshwater habitat has continued to be degraded or destroyed due to the state's rapid population growth and other factors. For example, field tests conducted by WDFW scientists have indicated that the mortality rate for salmon eggs and fry in some western Washington rivers is as high as 97 percent.
"Common sense tells you that at some point it doesn't matter how many fish you put on the spawning ground if the offspring from these fish die in our freshwater streams," Koenings said.
Koenings, a fisheries scientist, serves on the state's Salmon Recovery Funding board created by legislators last spring. In recent weeks, he has told his fellow board members that future funding decisions should be based on sound scientific data, and that overall recovery goals should be set higher than the minimum requirements necessary to remove salmon stocks from the federal endangered species list.
"If we set goals that are too low, we'll eliminate room for mistakes or natural catastrophes," Koenings said. "And that ultimately could spell trouble for a species in marginal condition and a quick return to endangered status."