ON THE HEELS of a nonexistent coho summer in 2016, the sporadic schedule of this year’s halibut season continues to keep cash registers closed, moorage space unused and hotel and restaurant dining rooms empty, exacting an economic and psychological toll on business owners in Sekiu and Clallam Bay.
Last year’s coho closure due to predicted low returns was understandable — for a little while. Then the chromers started to show and shine in the late summer and fall sun on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But nobody could keep them — except for those fishing across the border in Canada.
And anglers like to keep what they catch. It’s why you don’t see many folks fishing Lake Crescent with its catch-and-release policy.
With inconvenient scheduling and a will-they-or-won’t-they mentality with regard to halibut quota totals making it tougher than ever to attract anglers, operators like Brandon Mason, owner of Mason’s Olson Resort in Sekiu (360-963-2311) are once again negatively impacted.
“It’s hurt. Anybody that has come out has seen it first hand,” Mason said of the halibut season’s effect on his business. People call asking if there’s room to moor their boats or get a place two or three days in advance of an opener and I tell them the truth: it’s empty out there [at his docks]. They can come anytime now.
“It’s completely devastated the small community of Sekiu and Clallam Bay. I’ve gotten phone calls from Fish and Wildlife employees that have been out here and they’ve said, ‘We are sorry for what we’ve done. We’ve made a mess of it this year.’ I appreciate it but those aren’t the folks that make the decisions.”
Mason said the owners of Sekiu’s other fishing resorts: Van Riper’s and Curleys, also have seen a drastic reduction in customers and share his concerns about scheduling, communication and a perceived lack of transparency and accountability with the state’s halibut managers.
Lack of communication
He’s also upset that Saturday’s additional halibut fishery, open to coastal and Puget Sound marine areas, wasn’t discussed beforehand with sportfish advisors (Mason represents Marine Area 5), charter operators, resort owners and tackle shop proprietors.
“We were never asked [about how to handle remaining quota poundage],” Mason said. “Usually there’s a conference call and we all come to agreement or at least are able to voice an opinion.”
“Fish and Wildlife employees have told me Puget Sound should have gotten another day, and they could have stacked them back-to-back for a Friday/Saturday opener or a Saturday/Sunday.”
Mason believes that Marine Area 2 (Westport) exceeded its halibut quota earlier this month. But anglers will be able to fish for halibut again on Saturday out of that port.
“The North Coast has never gone after anybody else’s fish and for the state to back that, it’s another black eye,” Mason said. “Looking at the numbers, there would be enough for another two days in areas 5-10 if the depth restriction was moved to 20 fathoms and three more days fishing at Neah Bay.”
In an email to stakeholders Thursday afternoon, Fish and Wildlife’s Michele Culver disputed the claim that Westport was over quota and that any fish were swapped between marine areas.
“I want to make it clear that we have not transferred any quota away from the North Coast or Puget Sound and have not changed the allocations for those areas,” she wrote.
Puget Sound halibut anglers have gone over quota numbers in recent seasons according to the state. But that’s hardly the anglers’ fault. If a season is kept open, fishermen will fish.
Mason points to politics being the invisible hand pulling the puppet strings.
“The only reason I can think of is heavy favoritism to Westport,” Mason said.
“Phil Anderson, the retired director [of Fish and Wildlife from 2009-2015] owns a charter boat based out of Westport. Other retired Fish and Wildlife employees have charters down there. It’s beyond frustrating and the public needs to know.”
Anderson, who lives in Westport and also serves as vice chair of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, states in his personal bio that he “once again operates a charter business [the Monte Carlo] on a part-time basis.”
To serve on the council Anderson does have to file an annual statement of financial interest and pledge to refrain from voting on certain PFMC matters that may potentially conflict with official council duties and his private financial interests or obligations.
I’m not accusing him of any impropriety, but it’s certainly a cozy relationship.
“What’s most frustrating is to do this when they already have so much more salmon opportunity down in Ilwaco and Westport,” Mason said. “It’s just not right.”
Why no calls were made
Culver addressed why the state elected to make the opening decision without stakeholder input.
“WDFW is committed to reaching out and discussing proposals with our stakeholders before making decisions, particularly if we are proposing to close an area because of quota-attainment, or to shift quota away from an area that they could otherwise use,” she wrote.
“In this case, given the extensive public process we had in developing the 2017 halibut fishery, we believed that this decision was consistent with what we had talked about and did not expect that it would catch people off-guard.”
She also addressed a hesitancy to open halibut fishing on the North Coast and Puget Sound for a 10th day, despite fish potentially remaining in the quota.
“As part of the halibut inseason management process, WDFW confers with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (and ODFW if the decision affects the Columbia River area),” she wrote.
“As part of the decision-making process to open the fishery on the 17th, IPHC conveyed their discomfort with opening the fishery for another day regardless of the amount of quota that may be available after the 17th because the North Coast and Puget Sound have demonstrated that the amount of harvest that could occur in those areas is higher than whatever may be left.
“In other words, WDFW would not have been able to offer a 10th day of halibut fishing in the North Coast or Puget Sound even if there was very little halibut taken on this next opener.
“Therefore, consistent with the statewide season approach described above, WDFW determined that it would be in the best interest of Washington recreational fisheries to utilize all of the remaining halibut quota and decided to include Marine Areas 1 and 2 in this final opener.
“We understand that some of you are upset by this decision and have conveyed to us that you would rather have had a portion of the recreational halibut quota left un-harvested than provide Marine Area 2 with another opener and, on that point, I think we just need to agree to disagree.”
At this point, Mason said he’d just like a return phone call and a chance to improve communication between sport interests and the state.
“We need, as a sport-fishing industry, we need way more communication with the state,” he said. “We need to have more options and it feels like we need the state to work for us and not against us. I do get that feeling [of cooperation] during salmon season, I feel like we work well during that season. We have regular phone conversations on a weekly basis, but it’s almost like a secret society on this halibut stuff.”
He has two requests of anglers: send in comments to fish managers like Ron Warren ([email protected]), Michele Culver ([email protected]), Heather Reed ([email protected]) and director Jim Unsworth ([email protected]) and “support all the little communities, not just Sekiu.”
There are options for doing that.
Crabbing opens today in Marine Area 4 (Neah Bay east of the Bonilla-Tatoosh line) and Sekiu.
Salmon fishing will open off La Push and Neah Bay June 24, and anglers also have the tantalizing prospects of fishing for halibut, king, coho, lingcod and rockfish in Canadian waters (if properly licensed). All are short jaunts from Sekiu.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]