OLYMPIA – Trying to broker a truce in a long-running dispute, lawmakers are considering stripping the state Fish and Wildlife Commission of its role overseeing commercial fishing.
The move – likely to be voted on in a House committee today – caps an ongoing tug of war with high emotions on both sides.
The nine-member citizen commission, appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, oversees fishing and hunting policy.
Critics – including some key lawmakers and Indian tribes – say the current members are biased in favor of sport fishing.
But the commission’s defenders say the group is simply doing the best it can to preserve struggling fish populations. And fishing with a rod instead of a net, they say, is far more selective at a time when the state’s trying to preserve wild fish runs.
The commissioners “are acting on behalf of conservation,” said Ed Wickersham, a sport fisherman from Ridgefield. “They’re frightening interests that have lived by exploiting these resources.”
One of the most high-profile critics of the commission is state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle. He has allowed the Senate to confirm just one of the commissioners, Spokane’s George Orr.
Jacobsen is unhappy that agency director Jeff Koenings – perceived as a commercial-fishing ally – resigned under heavy pressure in December. He’s also offended that the commission snubbed commission vice chairman Fred Shiosaki two years ago, deciding against making the Spokane angler chairman. Shiosaki later resigned from the commission.
“He’s a wonderful gentleman, and they blighted his career at the end,” said Jacobsen.
This year, Jacobsen proposed a bill to shrink the commission, shorten the terms, and strip it of authority to choose the head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The governor would do that instead.
“They’ve managed to enrage the tribes, the commercial fishermen, the hunting community. And that’s pretty hard to do,” he said. “They’ve proved it doesn’t work.” The Senate approved the bill and sent it to the House earlier this month.
Jacobsen’s quite clear about the goal.
“If this bill passes,” he told lawmakers earlier this week, “we neutered ’em.”
Who makes the rules about fish and game has long been a political hot potato. For decades, it was done by state commissioners. In 1987, Gov. Booth Gardner took on the role of appointing a game director. Then, in 1995, voters approved Referendum 45, to return control to a nonpartisan commission. Among those backing the plan: Jacobsen. Now he feels that the governor – unlike appointed commissioners – at least answers directly to voters every four years.
The commission’s defenders say it’s impossible to please everyone.
“There’s an inherent frustration,” said Orr. “You negotiate who gets what kind of fish. And when you’re looking at 6 million people, there’s the potential of really pissing people off.”
Still, Orr himself says that there are problems with some current and former commissoners. Members have been rude to people who came to testify at meetings, he said. And there’s a tendency to micromanage the agency’s professional staff, he said.
The bill is now in a House committee, where chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, is trying to work out a compromise.
“It really in some ways does boil down to an allocation fight (over fish), and we try and stay out of those in the Legislature,” he said. But Blake said he, too, has grown concerned over Koening’s departure and recent decisions involving guns and hunting on public land.
State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said Thursday that the latest proposal would:
•shrink the commission to seven people,
•have the governor pick the agency head from a list of three provided by the commissioners,
•and have commercial fishing regulated by the director of Fish and Wildlife, probably with help from the governor’s office.
That would at least take some of the pressure off the commissioners, Kretz said.
Kretz argues that the current crop of commissioners are the best in years. In past years, he said, some commissioners weren’t willing to question or overrule the agency’s staff. He worries that the current controversy will result in gun-shy commissioners who simply rubber-stamp whatever the agency employees say.
“I’m afraid that’s going to be the biggest casualty of this thing,” he said.
A House hearing this week was packed with sports fisherman defending the commission.
Lynnwood angler Wallace Cogley called the criticism “shameful” and said that commissioners are simply trying to carry out their marching orders: to preserve endangered fish.
“They are being beat about the head and shoulders because they are doing their level best to implement the governor’s policy,” he said.
Commercial gill nets can’t tell a wild chinook from a hatchery one with a clipped adipose fin, he said. Sports fishermen are far more selective, he said.
“If I see a fin,” he said, “it never comes out of the water.”