More than any other time in history, the sport fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest is in need of help. The meltdown began in 2015 when our region saw some of the highest temperatures and lowest rainfall amount ever recorded. The notorious warm “blob” clung to the north Pacific and set up what can only be described as the “salmon apocalypse.”
Undernourished coho and pink salmon returned to drought-stricken rivers and lethally warm temperatures. Needless to say the outcome was not good. Emergency closures went into effect and virtually every river in the Puget Sound area was closed to fishing to protect the fish that had made it back. Sales of fishing tackle and boat sales came to a screeching halt.
Going into 2016, computer models showed that we were in for another year of very low returns of coho and certain Endangered Species Act-listed Chinook stocks. At the annual North of Falcon meetings where our salmon fisheries are negotiated between co-managers, tensions began to rise. With so few fish projected to return, both sides had a different vision for how to equitably share the conservation burden for the fish. Negotiations stalled and in an unprecedented move, parties left the table without an agreement. This had never happened before and put the sport fishing in industry in uncharted waters. Without an agreement, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife did not have the proper ESA permitting to conduct most fisheries in the Puget Sound area, closing almost every single river and lake flowing into Puget Sound to salmon and steelhead fishing.
The 2016 closure caused order cancellations in the tens of millions. Small businesses that depend on those fisheries began to lay off employees and some went away altogether. Weeks later the fishery reopened, but by then the damage had been done, and conservation still dictated large closures. Our customers didn’t purchase licenses and participation plummeted. Tackle and boat sales dropped to record low levels. The company I work for saw sales drop anywhere from 18 percent to 45 percent in the fishing and marine categories. Business saw lost sales that totaled into the millions.
Now, in 2017, we are working in a climate of uncertainty; we are unsure that the North of Falcon Process will work this year; rumors swirl that the governor’s office may replace sport fishing representatives on the commission, and we are uncertain if Washington will hold true to the Columbia River Reforms. In the midst of all this job-killing uncertainty, WDFW is proposing a record increase in the cost of fishing licenses we sell. We know WDFW needs the revenue the increase would provide. Trying to tell someone who has seen so much lost opportunity over the past couple of years that they have to pay significantly more without any sort of increase in opportunity is an extremely hard sell! The result will undoubtedly be lost customers for our industry as well as the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The one bright spot has been Columbia River fall Chinook. Unfortunately, it appears that even that fishery is under siege now that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has voted to roll back the reforms that were scheduled to be implemented back on Jan. 1, 2017. For the first time, Oregon and Washington will possibly have to draw an imaginary line down the center of the river and manage each side under a different set of rules. Are you kidding me? That’s crazy talk.
But again, the result will more customers dropping out for our industry as well as WDFW/ODFW. The bottom line is we need help. We want and need a healthy WDFW, but we need to have something to sell. Without meaningful opportunity, a fee increase is going to put WDFW and our businesses into a tailspin. A repeat of last season will cripple our industry as well as WDFW.
It doesn't need to be like this. Our state has some of the most amazing fishing opportunity in the world when we can access it. Our Legislature and our governor need to work with the agency and our industry to create an atmosphere we and the fish can thrive in. It is my hope that they will see that and throw us a lifeline.
Gabe Miller is director of marine and tackle sales for Sportco and Far West Sports in Fife and Outdoor Emporium in Seattle