Fishing Factions Snared In Feud Over State Panel -- Fish And Wildlife Commission's Role, Political Leanings At Center Of Dispute

OLYMPIA - As salmon runs continue to dwindle and the federal government mulls listing chinook salmon as threatened, the big fishing-interest groups in Washington state are sinking deeper than ever into fighting among themselves.

Longstanding divisions between sport-, commercial- and tribal-fishing interests are growing wider as the number of fish available to catch steadily shrinks.

Just how far apart the various sides are was revealed two weeks ago when the state Senate summarily dumped former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld from the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission, which regulates fishing.

Unsoeld was appointed as one of the unpaid commissioners in 1995 by then-Gov. Mike Lowry. Her ouster marked the first time in decades the Senate has exercised its option to sack a gubernatorial appointee.

A well-organized faction of sports anglers, who contend commercial fishing is depleting salmon stocks, pressured Senate Republicans to jettison Unsoeld, who has championed policies supporting commercial and tribal fisheries.

Unsoeld attributed her trouble to "a small group of holdouts who want only their view to prevail."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In 1995, voters overwhelmingly supported Referendum 45 to create a new Fish and Wildlife Commission that backers promised would insulate policy-making from fishing-faction politics. Members are appointed by the governor to six-year terms and must be confirmed by the Senate.

The commission regulates commercial and sports fishing, sets fish and wildlife policy, and hires and fires the director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The director used to be selected by the governor.

Supporters of the new arrangement, particularly those in the sports-fishing industry, believe the commission has helped balance the different interests.

"I don't think politics has a thing to do with how I vote," said Kelly White of Kettle Falls, Stevens County, vice chairman of the commission. "The commission is not perfect, but it's probably as close as we will get to involving citizens in fish and wildlife decisions."

Critics say the system just adds more bureaucracy to decision-making, with the politics as bare-knuckled as ever - and more complicated.

"It's just created one more layer of bureaucracy, a slot between the governor and the director," said Mark Cedergreen, director of the Westport Charterboat Association. "When you had a governor who oversees a director, you go see the governor. Now I have nine people to deal with. If anything, fisheries has become more political."

Unsoeld sees a bigger question.

"The larger issue is whether a governor can fill boards and commissions with their own selections, or if a small minority - some constituent group - can dictate to the governor how a commission can be constituted," she said. "I don't think it's tenable for a governor's choice of commissioner to be removed by one segment of the population."

Unsoeld's ouster leaves a third of the seats on the commission vacant. And the new system has left some fish advocates wondering just who makes decisions: the commission, the governor or the fish and wildlife director.

"There's a real power struggle about how fish policy is made, and a real question about just who is in charge here," said Tim Stearns of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of commercial- and recreational-fishing groups and conservationists across the Northwest.

"We are facing a major listing, and here we are, having a meltdown," said Pete Knutson of Puget Sound Gillnetters, a commercial-fishing group, referring to the federal government's recent proposal that Puget Sound wild chinook salmon runs be listed as threatened.

Commercial and tribal fishermen backed Unsoeld, who they said understood that fish should be caught for more than fun. Unsoeld calls catch-and-release sports fishing "a mantra of political correctness" and not a policy that makes for viable salmon runs.

"If you cut the commercials out of it, it would be too easy to say `Look at those beautiful wild salmon, aren't they pretty.' Well, I am not content with that," Unsoeld said. "I want to restore stocks to healthy levels for commercial harvest."

But sports fishermen, Unsoeld said, "believe commercial fishing should be strung up along with tribal fishing."

`Facing total collapse'

Sports-fishing activists said the issue isn't tribal fishing but over-fishing.

"Her cannery-row mentality could no longer be tolerated," said Skip Knowles, editor of Fishing & Hunting News, a regional publication that mounted a ferocious attack against Unsoeld.

"Here in the Northwest, where we call ourselves the epicenter of environmentalism, we are facing the total collapse of chinook in this state, and we still have nets in the water. What kind of rednecks are we?"

Anti-Indian sentiment blamed

Tribes feel especially wronged by Unsoeld's ouster. They say she understood their status as co-managers of the resource instead of junior partners with the state in deciding salmon policy.

"Tribes are more aligned with commercial interests than sport," said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 19 Western Washington tribes with treaty rights to catch salmon. "Sportsmen see the value of fish as the opportunity to catch fish for the experience of it.

"The tribes say experience is fine. But this is what we eat, and we have a right to that, and we'll be damned if we're going to give that up."

Anderson chalked Unsoeld's ouster up to anti-Indian sentiment, which he said is intensifying even as salmon runs dwindle.

Bad feelings have festered since the Senate vote. A coalition of commercial, sport and tribal fishermen is calling on Gov. Gary Locke to reappoint Unsoeld to the job.

Asked if he was so inclined last week, Locke said, "I don't think that would be productive."

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, who orchestrated the 26-22 vote dumping Unsoeld, said she had to go to save the fish. He also cited 58 calls, letters and e-mails from critics asking for her ouster.

The campaign against Unsoeld was ugly and personal. "This horrifically underqualified and completely phony, unconfirmed commission member must be shown the door," wrote Knowles in an editorial in Fishing & Hunting News. "I thought she was a well-meaning idiot. She is not well-meaning at all."

Puget Sound Anglers, which represents more than 8,000 sports fishermen from Bellingham to Vancouver, Wash., coordinated the ouster campaign, said Tom Nelson of Seattle, founder of the group.

He counts the Senate vote and adoption of a Fish and Wildlife Commission policy this winter to protect wild salmon runs as two major defeats for commercial-fishing interests, and he's happy about it.

"What we want is an open mind, and she represented only the tribes and commercial interests," Nelson said. "There's something new happening in this state."

Nonetheless, he and other supporters of the commission concede it hasn't made fishing any less political.

"It's as political as ever," said Nelson, "and that's unfortunate."

Lynda V. Mapes' phone message number is 360-943-9882. Her e-mail address is: