Marine Area 7 closed because of negligence and incompetence

In late August a letter-writing campaign was initiated asking both the Director of WDFW and the nine-member WDFW Commission to re-open Marine Area 7 following a closure after just seven days of chinook fishing in July. Ultimately the Department did not re-open Marine Area 7 on September 1st but did publish a letter on the agency website explaining their reasoning. If you are interested in reading the full letter it’s on their website. In the letter, presumably penned by staff member Kyle Adicks, Director Kelly Susewind spins a web of half-truths to justify his mismanagement and subsequent closure of the largest Marine Area in all of Puget Sound, MA-7. This closure resulted in MA-7 being open for a mere seven days for salmon fishing for all of 2021. For perspective, in 2014-15 MA-7 was open for eight full months of salmon fishing. 

To fully get a grip on this issue, one has to look back a few years. This debacle has its origins in an agreement made between a WDFW staff member Jim Scott and the co-managers (treaty tribes). In 2016 Scott was in a meeting with tribal leaders and agreed to management objectives for the southern US exploitation rates of 8% on wild Stillaguamish chinook and 12% on hatchery Stilliaguamish chinook.  These exploitation rate caps were very severe when compared to prior years, as no limit was previously agreed for hatchery-produced Stillaguamish chinook. What’s more, these new and lower caps were not required by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in response to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of Stilliguimish chinook. Ultimately Scott naively agreed to these new objectives which were concocted by the Stillaguamish tribe. Some Departmental staff and Advisory Board members recognized what the fallout of this agreement would be and issued both written and verbal warnings concerning the consequences of the new agreement. They warned of massive reductions and closures to Puget Sound recreational fishing seasons, especially in MA-7, as a result of the agreed-to management objectives. Predictably, Ron Warren and other WDFW senior staff assured the concerned Advisory Board members and the public that there was no need to be alarmed, that massive closures would not result from the agreement as many were predicting. Well anglers, here we are. How does 7 days out of 365 sit with ya? 

As if these closures weren’t bad enough, what’s even more disturbing is that no one from the WDFW Commission addressed the elephant in the room, that being the impact this debacle had on tourism, recreation, and businesses that utilize the Marine Area. Had Susewind been doing his job and ensuring MA-7 was being actively monitored for effort and catch rates during the July opening weekend, the 1382 quota on hatchery chinook would not have been exceeded, and the three month (July- September) season for pinks and hatchery coho could have gone as planned. WDFW published that anglers caught 2550 chinook in the first 7 days of July. So according to the Department, the quota was exceeded somewhere between July 4th and July 5th. The Department’s spin is that fishing was exceptional, effort was through the roof, and they closed fishing for conservation, but is it not Susewind’s responsibility to ensure the active monitoring of both effort and success during the seasons his Department sets?  This inexcusable display of incompetence has resulted in substantial economic loss to businesses, but more importantly, it had a massive impact on the quality of life of the thousands of families who live near or travel to the San Juan Islands for outdoor recreation. All this from the Director of a department mandated to maintain the economic well-being and stability of the recreational fishing industry and to enhance and improve recreational fishing in Washington State. So the 2021 fisheries management has been a complete failure, but let’s not forget that WDFW also closed Marine Area 7 in August of 2019 to all salmon fishing during the last pink run. Add to that decision this year’s closures and we have not just mismanagement, but total incompetence. Placating words like “unfortunate” and “regrettable” won’t suffice here. Where is the accountably and why is it the WDFW Commission has not publicly confronted Director Susewind on this issue?  One can only speculate as to why.  Perhaps the Commission members have never fished for salmon a day in their life? Perhaps they have a conflict of interest? Perhaps they just dont give a rip? Who knows, but while they sit and do nothing, recreational salmon fishing in Puget Sound is being dismantled and destroyed piece by piece, Marine Area by Marine Area, year by year.   

In the recently published letter, the Department begins with the following: “We recognize anglers’ commitment to salmon conservation and the sacrifices they make to help preserve this resource.” This would be hilarious if it were not so insulting. Susewind has the gall to suggest the anglers who fish MA-7 had some choice in the matter. He further implies that a mismanaged MA-7 fishery, resulting in a 7-day fishery for 2021, is somehow representative of the angling community’s commitment to conservation and should be recognized and applauded. No doubt Susewind sees himself as a public servant tasked with making extremely difficult decisions that will inevitably anger many groups no matter his chosen course. What’s more, there is a temptation to honor his courage and give deference to the weight he carries on his shoulders. It’s tempting, yes, but for the hypocrisy and outright inconsistency on display in the decisions he made. The fact is Susewind chose to close MA-7 after just 7 days of fishing and yet both tribal and non-tribal commercial seine fishing had been catching mature wild and hatchery chinook while targeting abundant pink salmon in the same area in August and September. The fact that these commercial fisheries were allowed to take place is not the issue. The issue here is that when asked during an early September advisors’ call about the commercial seine fishery’s impact on Stilliguamish chinook being conducted in MA-7, Department staff answered, “We have no data showing Stillaguamish fish are caught during those fishies.” So there it is:  Susewind is willing to shut down an entire recreational fishery because of potential additional  Stilliguamish wild and hatchery fish impacts, and yet on the same day they publish their justification for this, a fishery is being prosecuted that is killing an unknown number of ESA listed fish. How’s that for tough decisions? The real irony here is that, though the wild Stillaguamish Chinook is listed under the ESA for protection, the WDFW agreed-to exploitation caps on recreational harvest which resulted in the closures are neither supported by science nor required by NMFS to meet recovery goals under the ESA. In short, the caps were demanded by representatives of the Stillaguamish tribe and used to pry the recreational fisherman off the water, and Susewind handed it to them – all while turning a blind eye to the “unknown” number of tribal commercial impacts to the same stocks.    

The letter closes with this poke-in-the-eye statement, “In the meantime, we appreciate your continued commitment to angling and conservation and hope to see you out on the water here soon.”  Here Susewind closes with the same insulting tone he opened with, as he thanks us anglers for doing our part, by not angling. This is his definition of what it is to be a license buying angler/conservationist; one who does not salmon fish, even for hatchery fish. The future is upon us.  

Brett Rosson

President, Fish Northwest

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Brett Rosson