Willapa Bay hatcheries, fisheries potentially on state budget chopping block
Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission eying coastal salmon cutbacks as governor and legislature grapple with how to find K-12 eduction funds
By Katie WilsonEO Media Group
Published on October 3, 2014 8:50AM

WILLAPA BAY, Wash. — With a projected $3 billion state general fund shortfall to navigate, the governor’s office asked the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife how it would eliminate close to $10 million from its proposed budget for the 2015-17 biennium.

The result was a report released on the WDFW website detailing a number of cuts — including options to reduce enforcement officer hours, close four hatcheries and eliminate managed fisheries in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

For the moment these are “what if” scenarios, said Bruce Botka, a spokesperson for WDFW — what state departments will look like if they have to cut 15 percent of their state general fund budgets.

“It’s really early in the process,” said Kelly Cunningham, deputy assistant director for WDFW’s fish program.

The cuts aren’t necessarily on the table — but, then, they aren’t off it either.

Right now it’s difficult to speculate about what may or may not happen, but, he said, if even some of the cuts do happen, they’re going to have an impact.

“We feel they’re all deep, they’re all significant cuts,” he said.

Situation likely to worsen

The reduction options are seeking to close a general fund shortfall that is, according to a Fish and Wildlife Commission presentation from August, “as bad as we’ve seen since the beginning of the ‘Great Recession.’”

According to this presentation, the primary drivers behind the projected shortfall include a requirement on the state to fully fund education under the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and the ever-increasing costs in delivering government services because of inflation.

The McClearys are Washington state parents who successfully sued to force the Legislature to comply with the state constitution’s mandate that K-12 schooling be fully funded. Up until now, nearly all districts in the state must also seek supplemental maintenance and operations levies from local taxpayers in order to make ends meet. Paying for all schooling via state appropriations will seriously curtail some other spending that is considered legally discretionary — including the fish and wildlife agency. State legislators are expected to grapple with the issue starting in January when they begin writing the budget for the next two-year cycle, called a biennium.

“The problem is projected to worsen in future biennia,” the wildlife commission presentation stated.

Many departments, not just WDFW, are anticipating a drop in available dollars as well.

The governor’s office won’t release its proposed operating and capital budgets until mid-December and the first legislative budget plans likely won’t appear until late February or early March. The biennium begins July 1.

A lot could happen in the meantime, before WDFW’s budget exercise could become proposed cuts. New taxes and borrowing could generate more revenue, for example.

“We have a long way to go before any decisions are made,” said Randy Aho, Region 6 hatchery reform and operations manager with WDFW.

Hatchery closure option

At the Naselle Hatchery, rain has brought the salmon up the river. A glance straight down from the fish ladder and into the stream below doesn’t reveal much at first. A salmon may flash out of the water suddenly, struggling to get up the ladder. Here and there, a salmon’s gleaming back cuts a sinuous line through the foam below. The water is dark, reflecting only the overhanging trees.

But walk down the stream toward the river: The water is mainly dark because it is packed with salmon. They jostle shoulder to shoulder, belly to back. They wait in a long, weaving line for their turn to throw themselves against the current and up the fish ladder, through the black rushing water and into the holding pens above.

The Naselle Hatchery produces 800,000 juvenile fall chinook and more than 1 million juvenile coho as well as thousands of chum, rainbow trout and winter steelhead. All these fish are released into the Naselle River and go on to feed other wildlife and commercial and recreational fisheries along the Washington Coast and in Willapa Bay.

“Those fish and those fisheries are really important to local economies right now,” Cunningham said.

Closing the hatchery would save the department an estimated $824,000 in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, according to WDFW’s reduction report submitted to the governor’s office.

“It’s come up before,” Aho said.

Several years ago, the department was asked to go through a similar exercise, said Botka, and closing the hatchery in Naselle and relocating or laying off its three employees was an option then too.

What else could be affected

Among the reduction options that affect Pacific County directly is the option to eliminate management and sampling of commercial fisheries in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

If that field work were cut away, infrastructure and support costs would also be reduced, according to the WDFW report to the governor’s office. The commercial and recreational fisheries would have to close.

There would be an estimated loss of over $2.3 million per year of personal income and an annual loss of $1 million of income to commercial fishermen.

The report predicts that many of these fishermen, their licenses now useless for Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, would move to the Columbia River, “further exacerbating recreational-commercial conflicts.”

Another bit to read but it is Willapa.

An option to cut back on enforcement time would save the state $2.3 million but also reduce Fish and Wildlife police coverage in eight counties including Klickitat, Grays Harbor, Whatcom and King counties.

An option to close the Nemah Hatchery in Willapa Bay is also in the report. The hatchery produces 3 million fall chinook every year as well as 300,000 chum. The chinook from Nemah contribute to 43 percent of the fall chinook salmon production in the Willapa Bay area.

‘We have a long way to go before any decisions are made.’

— Randy Aho

Region 6 hatchery reform and operations manager with WDFW.
Dazed and confused.............the fog is closing in