EDITOR’S NOTE: With this first month of TRN for the new year, there are overwhelming issues that need to be address, many of which are much more important than my usual dribble. The most urgent and important, especially for those that care about the future of fisheries management in Washington State, is the pending long term “secret” plans issued from WDFW. For coverage of that, I turn it over to our outstanding columnist, Terry W. Sheely.
WDFW Director/Tribal Salmon Secrecy
Public outrage has ignited under WDFW Director Jim Unsworth for secretly negotiating a long-term WDFW plan with Northwest Tribes behind closed doors; a plan that will steer Puget Sound chinook fishing and management for the next 10 years.
Unsworth kept the WDFW/Tribal agreement under wraps throughout the compilations and negotiating process, without discussing it with the governor-appointed fish and wildlife commissioners who are Unsworth’s oversight-supervisors, state sport-fishing advisors, Puget Sound user groups, and sport-fishing advocate groups including CCA, Steelhead Trout Club, and Puget Sound Anglers.
That Unsworth secretly negotiated the 10-year management plan with more than a dozen tribes without input from the commissioners, state sport-fishing advisers or user groups triggered a rare and scathing public reprimand from Larry Carpenter, vice chairman of the fish and wildlife commission, outrage from the advisory groups that had been impaneled to—in the words of WDFW—work collaboratively with WDFW “on challenges the agency faces,” and to “encourage public involvement.”
It also provided ammunition for a grass roots group campaigning for an open meeting caveat to be added to WDFW requirements.
The Puget Sound salmon plan replaces a management plan that expired in 2014 and will determine decisions that will guide salmon management in Puget Sound for next 10 years, affect chinook salmon recovery, habitat development, harvest allocations, seasons, river management, and sport-fishing.
The 338-page Puget Sound salmon plan requires approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) before going into effect for the 2019-29 fishing seasons.
“The sudden and unexpected announcement of the “Ten Year Plan” was a stab in the back for the non-tribal community and highlights just how destructive secret negotiations are,” protested Perry Menchaca, driving force behind a grass roots effort to have state-tribal negotiations opened to public scrutiny and observers.
Menchaca’s outrage was fueled in part by a pledge for transparency made by Unsworth only weeks earlier, coming, according to Menchaca, while he was in fact already negotiating the 10-year plan in secret.
“All the while Mr. Unsworth was spouting his undying support for transparency and convictions for supporting the sportsmen in our fight for open meetings, he was engaged in secret meetings with the tribes, and crafting a harvest plan that will severely restrict non-tribal fishing for the next 10 years!,” Menchaca said.
“Imagine what other deals might be in the process of being agreed to right now,” he warned, adding, “we (and the Commissioners) might not even be aware of? Crabbing, Halibut, Shellfish, Complete River takeovers, Ramps closed or uncompleted, the potential list goes on and on.“
Menchaca’s year-old grass roots push is driven by signature petitions from sportfishermen and Puget Sound salmon advocates to force WDFW and treaty tribes into public negotiations via observers and/or live streaming video.
The details of the secretly negotiated 10-year agreement with the tribes are, in the words of Puget Sound Anglers (PSA) State Board President Ron Garner, “really, really bad for Washington State.”
The closed-door negotiations between WDFW Director Unsworth and 17 tribes, with no input from outside the director’s office, was seen as so outrageous that it triggered a public reprimand from Larry Carpenter, Deputy Chairman of the WDFW commission.
Apparently stung by his commission and WDFW’s 11 appointed advisory groups being left out of the process, Carpenter pointedly reminded the director that the commissioners are responsible for WDFW actions and for providing “oversight” for WDFW management decisions.
Carpenter’s rare criticism came in a public commission meeting where he strongly criticized Unsworth for the lack of transparency in dealings with the tribes and for excluding the commission from hearing details when the agreement was being framed.
Carpenter reminded Director Unsworth that his agency is supervised by the commissioners and said that excluding the 9-member commission from process is unacceptable.
It was a rare public rebuke of the director and a strong indication that commissioners are not happy with the director’s dictatorial decision making, lack of public transparency, and for ignoring sport-fishing advisors. Unsworth, 59, was hired by the commissioners in 2015 at a salary of $146,500 to oversee WDFW’s 1,600 employees and the agency’s biannual budget of $376 million.
(WDFW commissioners are appointed by the governor, the commissioners hire the director).
Carpenter received an attaboy for the public upbraiding of Unsworth from Sportfishing Advisory Committee member Dave Croonquist who was also left out of the loop.
Croonquist told Carpenter that, “In addition to the Commission being kept in the dark, the Puget Sound Sport Fish Advisors, (while we knew that something was supposed to be going on about a state plan for fishing) I was not aware of the work on what came out. I suspect the rest of the group was as blindsided as I was.
“I’ve contended for years now” Croonquist said, “that the Commission and the public generally hears what (WDFW) staff wants us to hear. Information is filtered and we’re not getting the full picture.”
According to WCS’s Perry Menchaca, “all the while (that) Mr. Unsworth was spouting his undying support for transparency and convictions for supporting the sportsmen in our fight for open meetings, he was engaged in secret meetings with the tribes and crafting a harvest plan that will severely restrict non-tribal fishing for the next 10 years.”
Gardner and Menchaca say the secret management program “is an unacceptable deal” that was made between WDFW and tribes negotiating our next 10 year Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan. Many of us are digging into this to try to understand and everyone is shaking their heads in disbelief. This was done behind closed doors without WDFW Commission being advised or even told about it.
“That’s right, we just confirmed with a very reliable source that the Commission wasn’t even read in on it! In fact, when asked to confirm if the statement made above was true, here is their reply: “Almost totally true. We heard little or nothing and no details.”
“How can the supervisory agency of the Department allow a Dirty 10 year plan to be done, in secret meetings, without the commissioners or any public knowledge and not be furious,” said one Puget Sound sport-fishing advocate.
The department’s excuse: we had to do it.
The 10-year plan, according to the state agency, was “Written by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and 17 tribes under a confidential, court-mediated negotiation process this year.”
It’s the confidential part that’s wrong. Any other agency dealing with millions of taxpayer dollars, and tremendous natural resources has to deal in the open, transparently, and with oversight. Why Unsworth thinks he’s exempt from public scrutiny is baffling—and probably illegal. The tribes can declare privacy—they just can’t force WDFW to go along with it, but they do anyway.
The department apparently believes that leaving license buyers and non-tribal user groups out of the management decision making process is appropriate.
WDFW’s idea, they said, is to “refine the management of state and tribal fisheries to better support efforts to conserve and recover wild Puget Sound Chinook salmon stocks, whose numbers have continued to significantly decline since they were listed for protection in 1999.” And that, they believe, means leaving the commissioners, sport-fishing advisory groups, license buyers (who pay for the fish and for the WDFW director) and other user groups out of the process.
So how’s that secret management policy been working?
Not well. According to WDFW’s own figures, Puget Sound Chinook numbers are down by 42 percent since they were first listed as endangered 19 years ago.
“It’s time for this to end,: declared Menchaca.
“It’s time for Mr. Unsworth to be sent packing! We, the citizens of this state can no longer continue to be treated as second class citizens being pushed aside by a director who is out of touch with his stakeholders. He has forgotten who buys his licenses and pays his salary.”
Unsworth’s actions, Carpenter’s reprimand and Gardner’s letter set off a fire storm of internet conversations, most recommending boycotting fishing and hunting license purchases until Unsworth leaves and WDFW re-commits to representing license holders.
The latest secret agreement is being cited by the open-meeting group as more evidence why WDFW and tribal negotiations must be transparent.
Menchaca implored, “It’s time to again contact your Commission and let them know “We Must End These Secret Meetings” Tell them it’s time to back up what they have said with real, meaningful action. Ask them to write open meetings into their policy!
“Our fish are disappearing and without open and honest management, we cannot do anything about it. How can we be asked to trust and to work together in cooperation on conservation efforts when we are continually excluded from the table?
“Why are we asked to shoulder the lion’s share of money to a department which treats us like second class citizens? And why does one party in the co-management process get preferential treatment at the duress of the other? Is this fair and equitable Co-management?” Menchaca asked, adding, Write your Commission today: Commission@DFW.WA.Gov.
“Tell them it’s time to back up what they have said with real, meaningful action. Ask them to write open meetings into their policy!” he implored.