Even as winter weather and unfriendly recreational conditions settle over Puget Sound, the state is once again beginning the long and contentious procedure to determine fishing seasons for 2017 to 2018. Despite diminishing salmon runs and complaints about the process, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), no significant rule change is expected for the Key Peninsula.
The state officially sets its salmon fisheries through a process known as North of Falcon (NOF). NOF is a series of meetings between state government fishery managers and tribal leaders. According to WDFW, the process gets its name from “Cape Falcon in northern Oregon, which marks the southern border of active management for Washington salmon stocks.”
NOF was created in response to the Boldt Decision, a 1974 court case in which Judge George Boldt ruled that Washington state’s treaties entitled recognized Indian tribes to roughly half of Puget Sound’s total harvestable fish. One of the major purposes of the NOF process is to manage Washington state’s fisheries to ensure compliance with the treaty. “We negotiate with them every year about our 50 percent and their 50 percent,” said WDFW representative Michelle Dunlop.
The NOF process begins in early January, when the Fish and Wildlife Commission (part of WDFW) meets to develop a general policy setting the state’s priorities for the negotiation process. When state and tribal representatives meet, they work together to determine the details for the year’s fishing season based on regulations and fish population forecasts.
“We look and see, for example, last year there was a bad forecast for coho,” Dunlop said. “If we’re going to protect the coho that are coming back, we both agree to limit our fisheries.” The process also includes public meetings for the state to receive wider input and additional conferences with the federal government to help determine ocean salmon fishing seasons along the Pacific coast.
Although the process contains some public meetings, the final negotiations are closed and involve only the tribes and the state. Indian tribes function as sovereign nations during this process and are under no obligation to open their meetings. “It’s the same as if the U.S. is negotiating with Mexico or Canada,” Dunlop said. “It’s not subject to the open public meeting requirements.”
This has led to complaints from non-Indian commercial and sport fishermen, who believe that their interests are not being sufficiently represented. “Some of our sport fishermen have sent a letter to us and to the tribes, and there was a group that also had a petition, hoping to get the public into those meetings,” Dunlop said.
The NOF processes over the last few years have only added to the controversy, as the unusually low predicted salmon returns have led to a lack of fishing options in several parts of Puget Sound. The limited resources also caused the process to take even longer than usual and increased the calls for open meetings with publicly available results. Northwest Marine Trade Association Fishing Affairs Director Tony Floor, in an article he published in Northwest Sportsman magazine, called the NOF process “gravely broken” and “a sad outcome for sport salmon fishing.”
Despite the growing controversy, there is unlikely to be any change in the near future. “There are several court cases that uphold the tribes’ right to close those meetings as a sovereign government,” Dunlop said.
Dunlop also suggested that this year’s NOF process would yield similar results to past years. “I’m not sure that (the Key Peninsula area) would see any significant difference,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission completed its policy recommendation meeting Jan. 14.
The draft of the NOF policy is at HERE.