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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Regional fisheries manager John Whalen blended fishing, conservation

John Whalen

John Whalen says issues related to conserving native fish species dominated much of his work during 16 years as regional fisheries manager in Spokane.

“There’s a lot going on,” he said in typical understatement.

Listing of Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead stocks under endangered species protections requires coordination with federal agencies for every move, including the setting of fishing seasons.

“Bull trout protections affected our work across the region, and up north we had conservation issues with native redband trout, westslope cutthroat and white sturgeon,” he said. “We made progress on all of them.”

Funding from Bonneville Power Administration, Northwest Power and Conservation Council as well as from Avista, Seattle Power and Light and public utility districts made a huge difference in programs the state could undertake, he said. Much of that funding, legally required to mitigate hydropower’s impacts to fish and wildlife, was shared with the region’s tribes.

The Kalispel Tribe’s fish and wildlife program expanded significantly in recent years. The Tribe took a lead role in suppressing northern pike that moved into the Pend Oreille River.

“That funding allowed us to bring in good young talented people and develop more partnerships with sportsmen as well as Canada.”

Whalen started with the state’s fisheries agency in 1981 as a project technician operating fish traps on the South Fork Skykomish River.  He continued working as a commercial salmon sampler and with steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout in Western Washington. 

His graduate school work involved bull trout on the Clark Fork River as well as projects with the Upper Columbia United Tribes in Western Washington as a fisheries biologist. 

Whalen was hired as the Eastern Region’s Timber, Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist in 1987. He was promoted in 1999 to regional fisheries manager supervising seven staffers and overseeing the work of about 40 others across the 10-county region, including five hatcheries.

Not the least of Whalen’s job was administering Snake River anadromous fish management with federal and tribal authorities.

“The Lyons Ferry and Tucannon hatcheries were touch and go, but we managed them through tough budget times,” he said. “The result is some tremendous opportunity for steelhead and enhanced opportunity for fall chinook and maintaining spring chinook.”

Anglers supported a move to pay an extra “endorsement” fee with their fishing licenses to maintain the salmon and steelhead programs, he said.

Northeastern Washington lakes rank as some of the best fishing waters in the state largely because of funding partnerships and stocking, he said.

Whalen dealt with some verbal bruising during the rise and demise of northern pike in the Pend Oreille River.

“I realize there were some fabulous opportunities with high catch rates and big fish in the early years as the pike population was expanding,” he said. “But conservation-wise and sustainability-wise, it wasn’t going to happen. The department wanted to reduce the possible impacts to downstream endangered salmon. And we knew the pike were going to overpopulate and stunt.”

He said it was tough to go to public meetings and defend pike suppression with fishermen who were enjoying trophy action and local businesses that were reaping economic benefits.

“But it was a call we had to make. As the bass fishing is starting to come back, I think it’s a little easier for them to take. Our surveys indicate that both largemouth and smallmouth fisheries are coming on.”

Trying to balance conservation with recreational opportunity has resulted in what Whalen calls “convoluted” regulations.

“People always remind me that our fishing regulations used to fit on three pieces of paper you could fold and put in your pocket – and now the pamphlet is more like a phone book.

“But if a size or tackle restriction gives them more time on the water and more fish to catch, they support it.”

Sprague Lake’s fishery hasn’t perked into the panfishing mecca biologists envisioned after the 2007 rotenone rehabilitation project, he said.

“I’m still hopeful the panfish will populate. It’s a lot slower than I would like, but anglers should be watching it. The fishing for trout, and more recently, the stocked steelhead, has been very good, but the plan is for it to mature into a great fishery for bass and bluegill.”

Badger Lake is in need of a rotenone treatment to eliminate the introduced bass and sunfish population so it can be restored to its old glory as one of the most productive trout lakes in the state, he said.

“There’s always been a challenge in educating folks,” he said. “We’re not trying to create a monoculture trout fishery everywhere, but where history says it works, we know the public likes it.”