OUTDOORS: Health experts advise WDFW on fishing

Halibut talks reflect state situation

THE STUMBLING BLOCKS surrounding halibut and now summer salmon seasons are a microcosm of the great debate underway as our state moves toward re-opening to more economic and recreational activity while also balancing potential coronavirus spread and transmission.

Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank was part of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recent halibut advisory panel conference call.

“Long story short on halibut is it remains a state decision as we don’t have control on opening a season,” Unthank said Wednesday. “Fishing is not something we can ban as public health experts, but we want to give guidance for how to do it as safely as possible.

“Fishing is a pretty fundamentally safe activity by itself as long as you are practicing social distancing. But the question becomes how do we make it safe at those choke points like boat launches and docks so there is less interaction and more hand washing and other preventative activities.”

Halibut’s allure has steadily increased over the years and the short season draws visitors from around the state and beyond to the North Olympic Peninsula.

“That’s the tricky thing about halibut — it’s such a destination fishery. There’s pressure from both sides — those worried about thousands of visitors and those who are operating their family business who are saying we are going to go broke if the closure continues.”

If Fish and Wildlife does make the call to move forward with a halibut season, Unthank hopes visitors are mindful of the health and safety of those they interact with during their trips on and off the peninsula.

“Anywhere along the line where people stop, make sure there is access to handwashing and other cleanliness procedures are followed. Employees should be protected, surfaces cleaned regularly as these folks come through. If they don’t stay the night and keep their distance between groups while fishing, it’s a pretty low level of risk.”

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said he was in a recent call with representatives of area ports.

“I expressed the public concerns — that people are apprehensive about a wave of out of town visitors. And that it’s not a city vs. rural divide, but about people moving from high-prevalence areas to less prevalent areas when you are dealing with communicable diseases.”

Locke said opening up for halibut does present a level of risk.

“It is a risk, but it’s not an unquantifiable risk,” Locke said. “We are in Phase 1 of the plan, which outlines no camping [on state and federal lands], no overnight travel and day-fishing only for those recreating. Those are the infection control requirements that are in place for the whole state and the degree to which Fish and Wildlife can manage that kind of activity is yet to be seen.

“The bottom line is a decision has been made [on restrictions] at a statewide level, and Fish and Wildlife will have to navigate that moving forward.”

Makah extend closure

The Makah Tribal Council extended the shelter order first passed in March that closed the reservation to non-residents through June 30. This will impact the first 10 days of the coastal salmon season, which is scheduled to begin June 20 in Marine Areas 1 through 4.

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or mcarman@peninsuladailynews.com.

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