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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

WDFW commission considers removing bag limits on bass, walleye in response to orca crisis

Fisheries technician Josh Fross releases a walleye that had survived being caught in a gillnet in Lake Spokane on May 9, 2017, during a project to reduce the carp population. (COURTESY PHOTO)
Fisheries technician Josh Fross releases a walleye that had survived being caught in a gillnet in Lake Spokane on May 9, 2017, during a project to reduce the carp population. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider removing bag limits on warmwater fish – including bass and walleye – on Saturday.

Bass, walleye and other warmwater anglers aren’t happy.

The possible management change is in response to new legislation aimed at increasing chinook survival in hopes of helping struggling orca populations. The proposed change would remove limits statewide on waters connected to salmon.

The decision is “low-hanging fruit” that ignores larger, more complex issues, said Joel Nania, the former president of the Inland Empire Bass Club.

“Things like taking out dams,” he said.

Bag limits for bass, walleye and other warmwater species were liberalized in 2017. That included removal of limits or size restrictions on bass – mostly smallmouths – in the Columbia and Snake river systems where native salmon and steelhead run.

Many bass anglers take pride in a catch-and-release ethic. Their goal is to catch a big bass and then release it alive so it can be caught again by another angler. Removing restrictions means meat fishermen can keep what they catch.

Bass and walleye eat salmon smolts, although to what extent they impact the migrating fish is disputed. Starving orcas in the Puget Sound captured public attention last year, however, and spurred the Legislature to allocate money to orca-related efforts. With salmon being a main source of food for orcas, any threat to salmonids is in the crosshairs.

Nania thinks the 2017 changes put the state in compliance with HB 1579. That bill requires, in part, that “the Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) must liberalize catch limits for bass, channel catfish and walleye in anadromous waters of the state.”

“We’re asking the commission to instruct the WDFW that no, we are already in compliance with this new house bill,” Nania said. “We liberalized bag limits two years ago.”

He will also ask the state to invest more into bass and walleye habitat.

“I’m OK with the current limits the way they are established now, as long as they don’t spread anymore,” he said. “But what we want is to see them improve habitat.”

Nania and other anglers from Spokane will attend Saturday’s commission meeting in Olympia.

In an open letter to the commission, Nania argued that the law doesn’t require eliminating limits. He also argues that bass and walleye aren’t the “cause of the problem.”

Arguing that they aren’t part of the problem is “disingenuous,” said Chris Donley, WDFW’s Region 1 fish program manager.

“We have science to show that those fish eat smolts,” he said.

But a bigger issue remains.

“We’re really devaluing those fisheries and they’re great fisheries,” Donley said of bass and walleye.

Liberalizing limits in some area is OK, he said, although a wholesale removal of bag limits wouldn’t have “much biological gain in it.”

Still, Donley said WDFW is responding to the Legislature.

“What we’re doing is exactly what the Legislature told us to do,” he said. “And there is really not a lot of biology in the action. There is a lot of emotion around saving orcas. I think there are some really much tougher decisions that have to be made to save orcas.”

Kim Thorburn, a WDFW commissioner from Spokane, said she hadn’t fully examined Saturday’s agenda. But she’s familiar with the issue from 2017.

She said taking a “blunt approach” is probably unnecessary. Still, how to balance the needs of salmon – a native species – and bass, walleye and other nonnative, but highly prized (and predatory) sport fishing species, is tricky. It’s grown trickier with the reintroduction of some salmon above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

“We certainly are getting a lot of comments in our email box,” Thorburn said.

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