The process that decides Puget Sound's fishing seasons may change next year after a controversial series of delays surrounding coho in 2016.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has requested a briefing by fisheries officials in January regarding The North of Falcon (NOF) process. They want information on the following: state and tribal laws; efforts over the years to address calls for greater transparency; case law on applicability of sunshine laws to fisheries negotiations; and recommendations on how to improve transparency.
NOF is the annual set of spring meetings between state and tribal representatives that determine fishing regulations. In recent years, low returns of chinook and coho have changed the tone of NOF meetings. The process has taken longer and ignited animosity among sports fishing advocates who believe their voice isn't being heard. Tribal representatives defended their fight for river closures and reduced catch limits because they believe conserving fish populations now will save increasingly vulnerable returns for the future.
The briefing was requested by Commissioner Miranda Wecker, who says a letter from Twin Harbors Fish and Wildlife Advocacy prompted her action.
"I was motivated to think again about how our government has lost the trust of so many people who would otherwise naturally support our mission. It made me think about how we might regain that trust," she said. "In my time on the Commission, I have heard our constituents complain virtually every year about the secrecy with which the final decisions at North of Falcon process are made. We have called for improving transparency each year. This is not the only source of discontent and I have no doubt that our hard-working staff have looked for better approaches, but I see that little appears to have changed and people are still unhappy."
Tribal leaders oppose opening the meetings to the public, pointing to times in the past when they feel they were untruthfully criticized. They do not believe the government-to-government meetings are subject to sunshine laws.
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chair Lorrain Loomis sent KING 5 the following statement:
"The North of Falcon process is part of a longstanding legal obligation for the treaty tribes and state to co-manage fisheries under U.S. v. Washington. NOF involves government-to-government negotiations between treaty tribes and the state regarding how salmon will be managed for the coming year. The State of Washington, through WDFW, represents its citizens in these negotiations. It is the State of Washington’s obligation to inform its citizens regarding the outcome of these negotiations. Treaty tribes – as sovereign nations – are not bound by the state’s open public meetings laws. For a number of years tribes agreed to allow some citizen representatives to observe NOF negotiations. That practice ended after the observers publicly mischaracterized tribal and state negotiating positions, further complicating an already challenging process. We look forward to working with our co-managers in the upcoming NOF planning process in the hope of implementing conservative fisheries that will not hamper salmon recovery efforts."
This year, many insiders described relationships between tribal co-managers and the sports fishing industry as the worst it's ever been. Commercial fishermen took historic financial hits. Protests spread across Puget Sound.
Currently, citizens can go to meetings between WDFW officials and key interest group advisors, but state meetings with tribal representatives are closed to the public.
"We're looking forward to a much better outcome than last year," said sport fishing activist Frank Urabeck.
Urabeck sat in on the process for seven years as an advisor with the boating industry from 1996-2003. There was concern whether the state was adequately representing the public even then.
Fishing and hunting license fees could increase substantially next year, pending a vote by the state legislature. For Urabeck, the NOF process could have a huge affect on how the public responds to increased fees.
"I think everything should be open. We should be able to discuss things and go our respective ways in the end. If we don't have cooperation, everyone will suffer," Urabeck said. "The public is concerned. Are we paying more for less? I think we should do all we can to encourage people to participate."
All of the commissioners voted in favor of the briefing. Wecker says it's about giving all constituents access to democracy.
"It is true that transparency is not the only practice that improves government. But lack of transparency usually reduces the level of trust in government and fosters misunderstanding of government actions. People do not know why the decisions are made and what alternatives might have been available. Secrecy can also allow the development of dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics between parties. Negotiators may not be held accountable for the positions they promise to take in public, but did not in private. Some may even exploit the privacy of such meetings to bully or otherwise act without civility and honesty towards their counterparts and thereby gain a negotiating edge that would not stand the light of day," she said.
Copyright 2016 KING