The decision to shut down fishing and hunting in Washington in response to the coronavirus pandemic has become a fiery flashpoint over the past month.
For many Eastern Washington anglers and hunters, in particular, the closures seem unnecessary. After all, they point out, fishing and hunting are easily done alone or at great distance from others.
“It doesn’t make any sense to ban things like fishing,” said Terah Altman, the organizer of Wednesday’s Let Us Fish protest at Franklin Park in Spokane.
About 50 people attended despite late-afternoon rain, with many pulling fishing boats that in better times would be out on the water, not on a trailer.
Lynn lives off the grid in Stevens County and estimates the fish she catches account for 30% of her diet.
“To take food from people is absolutely absurd,” she said, adding the closures don’t seem rational.
Dr. Kim Thorburn tends to agree with Altman’s assessment.
There is “absolutely no evidence” that hunting and fishing spread the virus, said Thorburn, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner. The commission is a nine-member citizen group appointed by the governor and tasked with supervising the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
And unlike the average angler, Thorburn is uniquely qualified to make that pronouncement. From 1997 until 2006, she served as the Spokane Regional Health Board’s chief officer.
While serving in that position, she said she was acutely aware of the power she held. During the 2001 anthrax mail scares “crazy decisions were made,” including President Bush’s order that the federal government stockpile smallpox vaccines in case that was the next bioweapon developed by terrorists or rogue nations. That was despite the fact that smallpox was eradicated worldwide in the 1970s.
“Fears create really vivid imaginations,” she said, recalling that time.
Thorburn sees parallels between 2001 and now, although she’s quick to acknowledge the severity of COVID-19.
“We’re in bad shape and a lot of us will get sick,” she said. “That’s the reality, and I don’t mean to downplay it.”
However, the decisions made by state and federal agencies should be based on evidence, not simply conjecture, she argues. She’s critical of decisions based on “what-if” scenarios. As far as she can tell, fishing and hunting closures fall into the what-if category.
She admits she’s playing armchair quarterback. She’s not tasked with making statewide decisions in real time based on limited information. Instead, she has the luxury of reading medical journal articles from the comfort of her home.
For that reason, she supported the initial statewide public land closure paired with hunting and fishing bans. On March 27, during a conference call, Thorburn and the other members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted to temporarily allow Kelly Susewind, the director of the state’s wildlife management agency, to make decisions without consulting the commission.
But she believes the closures should have been quickly refined and tailored. She points out that while hunting and fishing are closed, bird watching – another core activity promoted by WDFW – continues.
Birding “has continued pretty much as usual, except that practitioners are more conscious about the need for social distancing,” she said.
But what about limiting travel between communities, an often deployed rationale for the closures? Based on WDFW hunting permit information, roughly 70% of spring turkey hunters in 2019 traveled out of their home county to hunt. Ninety percent of spring bear hunters traveled for their hunt.
Thorburn argues that once it was shown conclusively that community spread had been going on for weeks and perhaps months, travel restrictions were too little and “too late.”
For example, on Wednesday it was announced that at least two people in California died of the coronavirus in mid-February, indicating that the virus had been spreading throughout the U.S. for much longer than initially thought.
“In my mind that leads to unnecessary xenophobia,” she said.
Instead, she believes that hunters and anglers practicing proper social distancing guidelines could still safely partake in their sport. WDFW officials said the emphasis on reducing travel was encouraged by local health officials, particularly in rural areas of the state.
Molly Linville, another Fish and Wildlife commissioner, agrees with Thorburn. She too supported the initial closures but now believes the state is “ready to thoughtfully reopen both the land and hunting and fishing.”
“What I do believe is through this process the public has learned how to deal with this virus, and we know what steps to take to keep us safe,” she said.
Their arguments aren’t unique.
A recent article in the Atlantic magazine argued that, because the coronavirus is not going to go away anytime soon, we need to enact policies that are sustainable over the long haul. That type of consideration is even more important when discussing activities that have clear mental and physical health benefits, like outdoor recreation.
“It’s plausible that we will be social distancing, on and off, for another year,” the author wrote. “That means we need to consider how to maintain compliance with strict measures over that long of a time.”
A similar point was made in a March article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association examining the legal underpinnings of quarantine orders and other restrictions on civil liberties.
“Coercive measures could be counterproductive and erode public trust and cooperation,” the article concludes. “Effective public health interventions that delay the spread of COVID-19 would allow time to develop key biomedical technologies, possibly including vaccines.”
Statewide hunting and fishing protests, including the one in Spokane, highlight the general restlessness and lack of support for the closures.
WDFW Director Kelly Susewind is aware of these concerns and, in an interview last week, signaled that the agency is developing a more targeted approach to fishing and hunting restrictions.
“We are taking a lot of hits,” he said last week. “The reputation of the agency is at a low because of these closures.”
And, in a speech Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee indicated that he would start reopening things slowly, potentially allowing more outdoor activities like hunting and fishing.
Reopening, whenever it happens, will bring its own challenges, Thorburn predicts. As that process unfolds, Linville urges WDFW to trust hunters and anglers to do the right thing.
“If the department goes out there with a club, that’s not going to help things,” she said. “If they go out there with a trusting spirit, that’s a baby step forward.”
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