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Angling groups: Budget shift a betrayal

By , Columbian Outdoors Reporter
Published: December 14, 2011, 4:00pm

Four Northwest sport-fishing groups say Washington’s governor’s office is using $1.5 million in recreational dollars to subsidize commercial fishing in the state’s 2011-13 supplemental budget.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is facing $6 million to $7 million in state General Fund cuts in the supplemental budget. The agency’s General Fund support has dropped from $110 million in the 2007-09 budget period to $69 million in 2011-13.

At issue is a proposal by the governor’s budget office to shift $1.5 million from the state Wildlife Account to cover 22 percent of General Fund salmon hatchery production that primarily benefits commercial and tribal fishing.

The Wildlife Account is principally made up of hunting and fishing license fee revenue. The 2011 Legislature increased hunting and fishing license fees with the support of most sport-fishing groups.

“Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than one year after increasing hunting and fishing license fees to ostensibly save recreational opportunity to then propose in the next budget cycle to use recreational user fee dollars to subsidize commercial fishing?” asked Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, governmental relations chair for the Coastal Conservation Association in Washington.

Joining CCA in a letter to Gov. Chris Gregorie protesting the fund shift are the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association, Puget Sound Anglers and Fish Northwest.

Wickersham, Ron Garner of Puget Sound Anglers, George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Mike Coombs, owner of Outdoor Emporium, testified before the Senate Ways and Means Committee last week in opposition of the funding switch.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has identifed three hatcheries for possible closure or production cuts due to the need to reduce General Fund spending.

They are Nemah on Willapa Bay, Hoodsport on Hood Canal and Samish on the Nooksack River.

Only 26 percent of the coho and chinook from Nemah are caught in sport fisheries, Wickersham said. Only 13 percent of the chinook from Samish are sport-caught and 5 percent or less of the chum from Hoodsport.

Documents from the budget office says general fund dollars for the hatchery system is approximately $7 million and the shifting of wildlife fund money is on a “one-time basis.”

“One-time budget shifts rarely occur only once,” Garner told the Senate committee

Coombs said improved sport fishing in 2011 resulted in his retail sales improving by 20 percent and the hiring of 30 additional employees.

Jim Cahill, a senior budget analyst for natural resources in the Office of Financial Management, said the money comes from the 10 percent transaction fee on licenses, a sub-account of the Wildlife Account.

Hunters contribute to the account in addition to fishermen and the Department of Fish and Wildlife had no plan for the money, he said

The governor’s budget does not specify which hatcheries the money is spent on, Cahill said. Sport fishermen benefit from the hatcheries in question to an extent, he added.

OFM “will be diligent” that this is one-time shift, he said.

The agency has been good about keeping the one-time promise in dealing with budget shifts affecting other parts of state government, Cahill said.

One of the budget cuts proposed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife was to save more than $190,000 by closing gillnetting in Grays Harbor. Wickersham said the value of the fishery is only $180,000 a year.

“This issue demonstrates once and for all that the commercial fishing industry is unable to pay its own way,” he said. “If the governor and her advisers think those commercial fisheries are so important then they need to fund them through the General Fund, not steal from the Wildlife Account.”

Wickersham said the license fee increases that went into effect this year provide an extra $15.5 million to the Wildlife Account in the current two-year budget period, with $9.2 million being from sport fishermen.

Overall, sportsmen generate $130 million this budget period for the Department and Fish and Wildlife via license fees, passes, endorsement fees and federal funding tied to federal taxes on sport-fishing and hunting.

State commercial fisheries provide less than $8 million in revenue to the state through license fees and excise taxes, he said.

“Recreational users have demonstrated we will do our best to pay for our impacts,” Wickersham said. “We expect the commercial industry to do the same.”