Washington bass, walleye fishing limits liberalized in response to orca crisis

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Limits on bass and walleye fishing — alongside other warmwater species — were liberalized by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this month.

The new rules, which will go into effect mid-February, remove size limits and daily limits on rivers and streams throughout the state; the rules also double the daily limits for most species on 77 lakes throughout Washington, said Steve Caromile, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s warmwater fish program manager

The changes are in response to new legislation aimed at increasing chinook salmon survival in hopes of helping struggling orca populations in the Puget Sound. Bass and walleye eat salmon smolts, although to what extent they impact the migrating fish is disputed.

Initially, WDFW proposed removing bag limits statewide, however the commission directed them to narrow their proposal.

The entire process has angered many bass and walleye anglers who prize the two nonnative game fish species. Allowing anglers to keep the fish means there will be fewer large fish in Washington waterways, a blow to the catch-and-release ethic championed by many. Some anglers feel that a 2017 liberalization of bag limits for walleye and bass already fulfilled the Legislature’s mandate.

“We are disappointed in this result and this points out more strongly the need for us to move forward with legislation intended to protect and grow the warm water fishery in Washington State for the positive social and economic future that it represents,” said Joel Nania, the former president of the Inland Empire Bass Club in an email.

According to a WDFW presentation to the commission, 500 people supported liberalized bass and walleye limits. Those in favor were concerned that the nonnative fish were killing salmon and hurting endangered native species, like orca. They also believed broadly that protecting native fish and wildlife is more important than protecting nonnative predators.

One-hundred and ninety people opposed the liberalized limits. Those opposed questioned the science behind the change, pointed out the economic value of bass, walleye and other warmwater fisheries and argued that orca and salmon conservation efforts should focus on “bigger issues.”

Groups that called for liberalized rules for bass, walleye and other species praised the decision online.

“These species are tremendous predators of juvenile salmon and steelhead,” according to a statement from the Wild Steelhead Coalition on its Facebook page. “The Wild Steelhead Coalition has long advocated for such changes to protect threatened native salmonids.”

The commission also approved a proposal from commissioner Kim Thorburn to develop a nonnative game fish policy.

“That will be a big piece of work for staff,” Thorburn said. “Most fishing policies are related to salmonids.”

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