The Fish and Wildlife Commission put the brakes on a plan to remove statewide bag limits on warmwater fish – including bass and walleye – on Saturday.
“The commissioners pushed back quite a bit on that,” commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane said.
Instead, the commission asked the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to narrow the list of lakes, streams and reservoirs in which bag limits would be removed. At the same time, Thorburn said, the commission asked if size limits could be implemented, thus limiting the number of larger fish kept by anglers.
WDFW will bring a new recommendation to the December commission meeting in Bellingham. The Fish and Wildlife Commission is a nine-member governor-appointed citizen panel that supervises WDFW.
The meeting was well-attended by bass and walleye anglers, mostly from the West Side, Thorburn said.
“The bottom line was they all agreed that, for whatever reason, WDFW took a blunt instrument, or sledgehammer approach to what should be done more surgically,” said Joel Nania, the former president of the Inland Empire Bass Club.
Nania attended Saturday’s commission meeting in Olympia.
The liberalization was proposed in response to new legislation aimed at increasing chinook survival in hopes of helping struggling orca populations. 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. Salmon are a main source of food for orcas.
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. Most bass and walleye anglers prefer catch-and-release rules so that larger, trophy fish can grow.
Nania believes the 2017 liberalization means the state is already in compliance with HB 1579.
While Thorburn agrees that the initial WDFW proposal was too broad, she thinks the new law will require change.
“The Legislature is saying, ‘Do everything that you can,’ ” she said. “Some action needs to take place. So we’re trying to do a balance basically.”
The commission also asked WDFW staff to work with the warmwater anglers when drafting new proposed rule changes, Thorburn said.
“This is just another wake-up call for bass anglers and walleye anglers in Washington State,” Nania said. “We need to have a voice in Olympia. The orca people do, the Save the Salmon people do. The Native American tribes do and we don’t. We end up being on the defensive all the time, and when you’re on the defensive you don’t score many points.”
The commission also received an update on statewide cougar management. The state is reviewing its cougar hunting policies after public safety concerns were raised at a March commission meeting in Spokane. Although cougar populations are notoriously hard to track, an increase in sightings and reports of conflict indicates that “there seems to be something going on,” Thorburn said.
In response to those concerns, the commission will consider changes to cougar hunting regulations in 2020. As part of that process, WDFW staff briefed the commission on current hunting and conflict cougar management Saturday. Statewide cougar density estimates are based off the average of eight separate statewide density studies, Thorburn said.
That estimate then determines hunting limits and seasons.
The commission asked WDFW staff to examine how that population density estimate is used to set harvest rules and consider using more regional information, including sightings and prey density, Thorburn said.
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