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Waterfront owners brace for fishing season

From the fenced public fishing access, Ian Lanier of Lagoon Point tries his luck at catching the big one on a beautiful afternoon. Crude fences, like the one behind Lanier, are intended to prevent fishers from trespassing on private property at Lagoon Point this summer. - Linda Richmond
From the fenced public fishing access, Ian Lanier of Lagoon Point tries his luck at catching the big one on a beautiful afternoon. Crude fences, like the one behind Lanier, are intended to prevent fishers from trespassing on private property at Lagoon Point this summer.
— image credit: Linda Richmond

Fishing season officially opened July 1, and until it ends in October, Whidbey Island residents who live near public fishing areas will be keeping an eye on their bits of beachfront.

During last year's fishing season, when fish runs were particularly plentiful, waterfront property owners saw their privacy, their views and -- most of all -- their own fishing encroached upon.

"I moved here to this particular place for its beauty and the fishing," said a Bush Point homeowner who preferred not to be identified. "Last year it was so bad I didn't even fish on my own beach."

After confrontations last year with aggressive fishers, few beach property owners living near public fishing spots are interested in talking about the problems publicly.

The fishers "aren't going to be happy," as one owner grimly put it, about the new enforcement of trespassing laws.

Already, homeowners at Bush Point and Lagoon Point have posted private property signs and, in the case of Lagoon Point, even built fences around the public beach into the Sound. One Bush Point community on Spyglass Drive has printed formal guest badges to be worn by their invited guests when fishing.

Residents of Lagoon Point and Bush Point areas say the true test of whether the steps they have taken will work will come later in the month when the big fish runs start coming through.

These are not futile efforts, as long as law enforcement has time to respond to trespassing calls in the two communities. State statute provides that trespassers can be removed from the property and fined. Trespassing can result in an arrest or citation up to $250 or both, according to Sgt. Ray Tash of Island County Sheriff's Office.

"We get dozens of calls from citizens about trespassing during fishing season," said Tash. "We've been inundated at times."

The property of the Bush Point resident,, which, like his neighbors', includes the tidelands, sits immediately next to the public access owned by the Washington State Fisheries. As a consequence, the sporting fishers spill onto the property.

According to the Bush Point resident, that wasn't the problem, since for years he had allowed fishers on his property when he himself wasn't fishing. The problem arose when the fishermen refused to leave when the property owner asked them to move so he could use his own beach.

Other problems, such as disorderly conduct, urinating and defecating on the beach and private decks, drunkenness and lewdness, all have been reported by waterfront property owners.

These situations can escalate, especially since alcohol is often part of the equation, said Detective Russ Lindner, head of marine safety for the Island County Sheriff's Office. If, after a polite verbal notification from the property owner, a trespasser does not leave, the property owner should call 911, Lindner said. A deputy will be assigned to deal with the trespasser.

Lindner said the county prosecutor's office has asked that deputies give trespassers warnings on the first incident. Subsequent incidents by the same individual will earn them a citation and possible arrest, he said.

Last year, the sheriff's office gave out only a handful of citations. Lt. Evan Tingstad, commander of the South Whidbey sheriff's precinct, said initial warnings given out by deputies usually have the desired effect of getting fishers to obey the law.

Detective Lindner said that for the most part, islanders are not the problem; they seem to know about beach rights. However, people from off the island don't know that many of the beaches are owned, so these people are the ones who need educating.

For some people, particularly those from states where beaches are held publicly, such as California, the concept of private waterfront and tidelands can be a surprise. But in Washington state, private beach ownership has been common since 1889.

At one point last year, Bush Point residents counted nearly 350 people using the Bush Point beach before they cut off public fishing on private lands. In September, several of the residents met with the Port of South Whidbey commissioners to discuss the situation. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife owns and operates the fishing area at Bush Point, and the use of the facility is monitored by the Port of South Whidbey, but these organizations are able to do little to help neighboring property owners.

One Lagoon Point home owner who, like his fellow beach resident at Bush Point asked not to be named, said that the north end of Lagoon Point has a more severe problem than the south Lagoon Point public fishing area. Even so, at the south end, the community has placed a small chain fence on the beach to delineate the public versus private properties.

What seems to be lacking seems is the information about other public fishing places.

"If I didn't have other options I'd have to fish other places, all up and down the side of island," said Ron Burnett, a Bush Point resident a caretaker for Fisheries for the public fishing area.

Because of their proximity to some of the best and most desirable fishing and clamming on the island, Bush Point and Lagoon Point are also the most notorious problem areas for trespassing on South Whidbey beaches. But they're not the only ones, per Jan Smith, chief deputy at the Sheriff's Office.

Smith cited Possession Beach and the South Whidbey State Park as additional public fishing problem areas. She said her agency has also taken frequent compliants about illegal fishing near the Clinton ferry dock. Fishing is permitted on a fishing pier owned by the Port of South Whidbey, while a nearby floating dock is off limits to the public.

Smith said that Scatchet Head beaches also see trespassing to such a degree that residents have hired security guards during clamming and crabbing season and go to some expense to enforce their "residents only" usage.

Because Washington state allowed the sale of beaches and tidelands until 32 years ago, approximately 50 percent of Whidbey Island's beaches are private, including the tidelands or a portion of them, according to Don Meehan, County Extension Agent, WSU Cooperative Extension.

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