State allows fishing to stay open at Scatchet Head

For local sportfishing advocates, two out of three ain't bad.

After months of talks between area fishermen and officials on the county's Marine Resources Committee, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife decided Monday to scrap one of three proposed closures of Whidbey beaches to commercial and recreational salmon harvest.

The original Fish and Wildlife proposal was to create Marine Protected Areas in locations around Admiralty Head and the Keystone Ferry terminal, as well as a crabbing-only area near Scatchet Head on South Whidbey. These MPAs prohibit non-tribal and commercial fishing in order to protect bottomfish such as lingcod and rockfish, whose populations have declined over the last two decades.

On Monday the state elected to withdraw the MPA in Scatchet Head. The Keystone conservation area was recommended as proposed, and Admiralty Head was recommended as a "marine preserve with urchin and sea cucumber harvest left open."

Island County MRC vice-chairman Tom Roehl said he had "mixed feelings" about the findings. For the most part, Roehl said, he feels the state did well in accommodating the suggestions of residents and officials concerned about the effects the proposed MPAs would have on current fishing practices. However, such praise was not unconditional.

"I wish they had taken our suggestion about Admiralty Head," Roehl said. "We had suggested that they continue to allow fishing for fish that migrate through the area."

Roehl said there is some confusion over whether it is OK to fish for salmon at Admiralty Head under certain conditions.

"The way the boundaries are drawn, you could still fish from the shoreline," he said. "It's unclear whether they're trying to allow it or prohibit it."

However, Fish and Wildlife's Mary Lou Mills said the Admiralty closure does not apply to the "popular salmon fishing" at Fort Casey State Park but only to that area north of the Seattle Pacific Conference Center.

"I would not recommend you try to fish from that point north," she said. "Admiralty Head begins at extremely low water."

The area now is open only to the harvest of urchins and sea cucumbers. Mills added that the area east of the pilings at the Military Wharf is still OK, though west of that demarcation is off limits.

Roehl, for his part, feels the Admiralty Head MPA should be pushed northward, where environmental protection could encompass a larger bed of bull kelp, which provides habitat to rockfish.

"The whole thing would be better if it was moved five miles north," he said.

The reasons for the scrapping of the proposed Scatchet Head MPA differ depending on whom you're talking to. According to Mills, the parameters of the proposed area were too confusing.

"The agency recommendation was that we didn't have understandable boundaries," Mills said. "It's not a place that you can orient to."

The Island County MRC, while agreeing that the boundaries would be difficult to enforce, has contended all along that the scientific basis for the closure was weak.

"There really wasn't much science that warranted doing it for the sake of rockfish," Roehl said, adding that there was not enough evidence that such species are being affected by fishing. "More science is need."

Roehl said the MPA would be too difficult to enforce because all the boundaries are some distance from the shore.

Fish and Wildlife has received criticism throughout this process for not seeking enough public input on the proposed MPAs. With the push of such organizations as Island County's MRC, though, a dialogue was struck up between the state and local recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as regional tour boat industries. In the end, such advocacy appears to have had an effect on Monday's final decisions.

"I think we contributed to it," Roehl said of the decisions. "They did come to us at the end of the process."

Roehl pointed out that, upon seeking public input, the state found that it "just received no positive input at all on Scatchet Head," which may have had a strong input on the decision to withdraw the recommendation.

"Overall, Fish and Wildlife do a good job," Roehl said. "I guess they could have come to the MRCs a little earlier in the process."

He said that such will probably be the case in future proposals.

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