WENATCHEE — The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is struggling with getting sufficient funding to manage public lands and resources.
On Thursday, Director Kelly Susewind, Ephrata-based Regional Director Jim Brown and Public Affairs Director Carrie McCausland, all with Fish and Wildlife, answered questions from Wenatchee World Reporter Tony Buhr and Managing Editor Russ Hemphill.
The agency’s funding hasn’t returned to the levels it was at before the 2009 recession, Susewind said. Also, many people in the state don’t know the agency exists, despite the fact Fish and Wildlife manages more than 1 million acres of public land and 600 water access sites.
“When I say folks don’t know who we are it is the folks who don’t think about hunting or fishing,” Susewind said. “But when they are driving down the road they see a bald eagle, they slow down and say how cool it is. Those are the people we need to tap into to recognize there is a value.”
The state legislature spends less than 1 percent of its general fund budget on its natural resource agencies, Susewind said. He thinks that’s a strangely small percentage for a state that relies so much on its natural resources.
“To me in a state like Washington that is actually shameful that we put less than one,” he said.
Some of the budget constraints are due to political issues and debates around things like salmon returns, Susewind said.
Here’s an edited version of the portion of the interview that focused on fish and fishing with Susewind and Brown:
Wenatchee World: There are many miles of salmon habitat available above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams Why don’t we do something big to improve the salmon population like rebuilding Chief Joseph or Grand Coulee to allow fish passage?
Brown: There are some technical challenges with that idea. Those runs have been extirpated. We don’t know what genetic lines there was. We probably had fish that had much bigger body mass in order to travel those kinds of distances.
But you also have systems that have been isolated, particularly behind Lake Roosevelt. You have the redband trout, and those fish have not been exposed to some of the fish-born pathogens that are endemic.
If you’re going to take fish to another area and bring it up into there, you have to be very cautious, because you don’t want to adversely impact other species.
Susewind: We are working on it. It’s like all this stuff it’s more complicated than it seems. I don’t think it takes a rebuild. There are some technologies to get fish up and over the dams. So I think we will see progress, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through first.
WW: So are you saying you’re coming up with a testing strategy and that it will take place? Or are just talking about what a testing strategy might look like?
Brown: We have committed to a trial passage effort to see what happens. It may not be all the way to Grand Coulee. It may just be over Chief Joseph. Ultimately we haven’t signed on the dotted line that we are going to do that. But in verbal communications we have said we are committed to working on this program.
We’ve sent people to the moon. It’s a cliche, but we can figure out how to get salmon over the dam. The bigger issue on Lake Roosevelt is the return, because you don’t have the run of the river there.
Normally, salmon would take advantage of the current to take them out. They are going to have to swim a lot of their energy off to get down to Grand Coulee Dam.
Plus you have to remember we’re trying to stop northern Pike from coming down. So the same vehicle that we’re going to create for fish passage is potentially going to be a way for northern pike to transit in the system.
We’re trying to keep them from getting down to where we have anadromous (migratory) fish and they could really have an adverse impact. You park some northern pike at the mouth of the Okanogan River and they could do some real damage.
WW: There is also the use of commercial gillnetting and its impact on salmon. Are you guys going to be looking at that in the future?
Susewind: The policy is to transition away from gill netting. A lot of the controversy is that we should have been at the stage of transitioning away this year and our state Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to not move away this year.
Part of the policy and part of our mission is to maintain a viable commercial fishery as well. So if you’re going to get rid of the gillnets you have to have something else in place. There were a couple parts of the old policy (to move away from gillnets TB), part of it was buying back those gillnet licenses so people don’t take a loss, the other was developing alternative gear.
We hadn’t made enough progress on either of those, so the commission voted to extend the end of gillnetting into next year.
WW: There is no way to provide commercial opportunities without gill nets?
Susewind: We’ve looked at pound nets that are basically a big fish trap. Those are very expensive, they are rooted in one place and they have a high capital cost.
Seines can work as well and that is a matter of timing and the right place. Seines have a very low mortality. You can turn over the fish you want and put them back, but they have a much higher instance of contact.
(Note: A seine is a net that traps the fish in the water, sometimes in a purse-like structure, instead of catching on their gills and killing the fish.)
So you’re out there salmon fishing, but you don’t want to be incidentally killing steelhead.
(Note: Steelhead are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.)
So a gillnet kills more fish, but a seine encounters a lot more fish. You put a gillnet in the right place, at the right time, with the right fish running, they aren’t really encountering the other fish, those non-target species.
Seines we’ve got to figure out the right time and place. Where we’ve tried it, we’ve had such a high encounter of steelhead that even if only a small number of those die when you release them, you’ve encountered so many that the total mortality is high.