Understanding the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission with Randy Fisher | Changing Waters
There are a lot of fish to manage in the Pacific Northwest
On this special rebroadcast episode of Changing Waters, the late, great Thane Tienson sits down with Randy Fisher, Executive Director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC). Established in 1947 by consent of Congress, PSMFC is an interstate compact agency that helps resource agencies and the fishing industry sustainably manage the valuable Pacific Ocean fisheries in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.
Thane Tienson 0:00
Welcome to changing waters, a series about our oceans, the people whose livelihoods depend upon their health and those who work to keep them healthy. I'm Thane Tiensen, co host of this show with my friend and colleague, Brad Warren. Our broadcast today is a production of the global ocean Health Network program with the National fisheries conservation center, and is distributed by the American shoreline Podcast Network. Today, we are in Portland, Oregon at the headquarters of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries commission. And I am speaking with the longtime executive director of that commission, Randy Fisher. And Randy, introduce yourself and I know you because we have been friends a long time long experience in the fisheries world, but why don't you tell our listeners about your background and experience?
Randy Fisher 0:58
Yeah, I've been here about a little over 25 years prior to that I was a director of Oregon Fish and Wildlife for almost eight years. I'm not a biologist, I was brought in to Oregon fish wildlife to take care of some budget issues that they were having at the time. So that's how far back I go.
Thane Tienson 1:18
But that's all changed a lot. As somebody who has been involved in at least observing fisheries management here on the Pacific Coast myself for the past several decades, this has been a family dynamic, but a challenging and your case 33 years in the fisheries management business. So is that fair description?
Randy Fisher 1:45
Yeah, yeah. When I first started, the big issues at the time, were basically spotted owl, which is not a fishery issue. But that was the big thing at the time. Oregon has changed dramatically over those years that I've been here, going from mainly timber type of activities to high tech, more high tech than anything. So the public has changed, and fisheries are becoming more complicated daily.
Thane Tienson 2:11
So well, you're mentioned of the spotted owl highlights one of the issues that we'll definitely be talking about. And that is the role of the Endangered Species Act, and in particular, the listing of salmon that started affecting not only fisheries here in Oregon, but throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and continues to do so now for for many decades. And then additional listings that have further complicated that, but let's start talking started out by talking more about the commission itself. Tell us about the history of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries commission, and its role and what your own responsibilities are. Sure.
Randy Fisher 2:53
So give everybody a little history. There are three Commission's in the United States and one of the Atlantic one in the Gulf and then we run the one here on the Pacific. Our commission is 73 years old this year. It was set up originally, as a compact. So the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, and Alaska joined. And the idea was to share research information between the states so that there wasn't duplication going on all sorts of things. So we were a little The largest of the three Commission's we have a staff that range, we have a permanent staff of about 230 people. Now we're hiring again. So we'll go up to about 600. here in Portland, we have about 50 people. We managed the West West Coast databases for all of the commercial landings all over racial landing on the west coast of Alaska. We have a law firm and retainer back in Washington DC. So we lobby on behalf of the states. So every year we have an annual meeting that moves between the states. So changes every year. And at that annual meeting, they we discuss the hot issues of the year like whale entanglements, threatened dangerous species, all sorts of things for about a day and a half. And then we make each of the states split out and have meetings and then they give us the staff and the lobbying firm, Brad direction in terms of how they want us to love every year. So we do a lot on behalf of the states. We are overhead rates about 12% little over 12%. So we do a lot of hiring on behalf of the states and the federal government. So that's kind of what we do.
Thane Tienson 4:41
All right. And so looking through, hopefully the website for the commission, I couldn't help but notice that you have been the longest serving director by far in this organization. It's 25 years, I believe, this year. All right. Yes. So what do you attribute your longevity to?
Randy Fisher 5:08
I would guess it's mainly we try to fly under the radar, we don't, we don't advertise a lot about what we do. We're not in competition with the states, we're here to help them. That's probably one of the main reasons because if you stick the nose up in the air, somebody is going to bat it around. So that's, we just try to get the job done on behalf of the states and manage everything on a low overhead rate.
Thane Tienson 5:37
So as a practical matter, how does the commission itself function? Do you get direction and guidance and policy issues from your commissioners?
Randy Fisher 5:50
We do at the annual meeting. And if there's some other issue that I think is important, then I will, you know, talk to the state directors. So each of the commissioners, the commissioners, we have I worked for 15 people, there's a senator or representative from the state is the head of Fish and Wildlife from the state. And then there's somebody appointed by the governor. So that's the formal setup. So every state gets one vote at the annual meeting. And we actually go through a process of formally voting on every resolution that comes up for to us. If there's conflict between the states, then we won't move forward. We try to make sure that everybody is in agreement. All right. And, yes,
Thane Tienson 6:32
so as a practical matter, how often does that conflict occur? Or have you been able to work pretty much with unanimity over the years you've been
Randy Fisher 6:41
ahead of the committee pretty much, there hasn't been a lot of conflict. But the only conflict ever that I recall, came up, related to threatened danger Species Act. That was in the states couldn't agree exactly what to do in terms of marine mammal.
Thane Tienson 6:58
Well, let's talk about the history and evolution of Fisheries Management. Because this is something that impacts the work you do on a daily basis and has for years. And talking about that history. When did we really begin to see a strong federal presence? First, in, in fisheries management, you're on the Pacific Coast? Well, that,
Randy Fisher 7:29
I mean, that probably goes back to what I was, I was actually in Washington for a number of years in state government, there's Deputy Chief of Staff for john Spellman. And it goes back clear to the salmon wars, where the whole issue of the bold decision in the split on how to deal with the tribes versus everybody else in terms of fisheries. So that's probably we're really started firing up a lot.
Thane Tienson 7:56
Okay, that's a great segue to what what has to be the most challenging of all of the species that you have a role in managing here on the Pacific Coast that salmon, and you mentioned the salmon wars that talk a little bit about that, because I suspect a lot of listeners aren't familiar with it, and probably aren't even familiar with the boat decision. So
Randy Fisher 8:22
yeah, originally me it was an issue between the tribal nations in Washington and basically the recreational fishermen. And the issue came down to how to split out the allocation between the tribes and everybody else, whether it's commercial land or recreational. The interesting thing about it is is it originally, like, the tribes, were basically ready to offer up 29% of the fixed where they wanted an allocation of 29%. And, and the recreational and commercial guy said, No way, we're gonna, we want more. And when the bold decision happened, it came down to the fact that the tribes get 50% of the harvest civil surplus of the fish. So that's what ended up happening. So now what we do is everybody calculates how many harvestable fish are available, and the tribes get 50%. And everybody else gets the other.
Thane Tienson 9:23
Well, let's talk even a little bit more about the history of that conflict, because as I recall it, the the salmon arvest was principally accomplished by the non Indians all the way up until that boat decision came down and that was because these, the treaties that the United States entered into with these Indian tribes here in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to the 1850s, which obligated the United States to provide the right to fish in common at their usual and accustomed sites was really never enforced. And it wasn't until this bolt This is in charge, both the federal judge in Tacoma decided in the late 1960s. And then it ultimately went to the United States Supreme Court where it was affirmed that they these treaties still had teeth that they were to be enforced and suddenly, literally quiet overnight. The Indian tribes here in the Pacific Northwest, who had treaties, were able to look to be a co manager the resource and share equally in the abundance.
Randy Fisher 10:42
Yeah, it's it's interesting thing, because if you if you think about it, and a lot of people have a real heartburn with the tribes. The truth of the matter is, as far as I'm concerned, I've been around this for a long time, as you well know. And that isn't a word for the tribe, we wouldn't have as many fish as we have today. Because the Bonneville Power Administration, a number of other these organizations that really affect the fisheries, they're, they're more worried about the tribes and losses by the tribes and they are in a. So my opinion is if it weren't for the tribe, we wouldn't be as good a shape as we are, right.
Thane Tienson 11:19
That's actually a great insight and something that I hadn't really appreciated until you just sent it. And yeah, again, by way of background, these a large number of hydro but big hydro power projects, were all built installed on the Columbia River system beginning in the late 1930s. All of which, at some point blocked migration of salmon. And as a consequence, there were some mitigation through hatcheries, the so called Mitchell act, a federal enactment, but those were all below the dams for and it wasn't until again, the Indians finally were able to to persuade the courts that those treaty rights that they had were meaningful, that suddenly there became a necessity really to ensure a salmon migration beyond those dams. Absolutely. Yeah. So tell us, then speaking, let's talk a little bit more about salmon because the war is over salmon didn't end with the Supreme Court and the treaty rights. And you alluded in part to it, and that is the Endangered Species Act. And those listings, what has been the complication an issue there?
Randy Fisher 12:38
Well, that's that's another interesting one, because we're sitting here on the edge of the Willamette River, and this river basically, has been run to ensure wild fish. The interesting thing about it is if we were allowed to have more hatchery fish, you would see a huge fishery out here. So one of the issues that you know, that I think we have to get over as is, as almost an amendment to the act is to say, you know what, we're just going to allow this river to be a hatchery fishery, or hatchery and wild fisheries. Now, we're under the restraints of the threatened Endangered Species Act, you can't do that. And that's a problem. You have an option, you can go to the God squad, which are the head of the federal agencies and say, guess what, we're going to right off the Willamette. And they could do that in theory and get around the act. But the act now doesn't allow that sort of thing to happen. And I think that's a shame to tell you. Because if you look at what goes on in this river, or you look at what goes on on Puget Sound, I mean, you know, we're not going to change the habitat, it's not going to go back the way it was in 2000 or 1900, or something not going to happen.
Thane Tienson 13:59
Yeah, you know, you've you've mentioned a couple of things to there probably requires some elaboration. Well, am I, for those who don't know is tributary, praya, very large tributary and the second I guess, largest tributary of the Columbia River. And it enters the Columbia, about 100 Rivers up my river from the ocean. And it is the river that Portland considers itself probably. And it's a river that add importance for the for the treaty tribes, but it is also sustained, a non treaty recreational fishery in particular for 400 years or more. Yeah, and of course, we're talking about salmon, probably the iconic species of the Northwest and its importance CES beyond economic, it's Socially Important. It's culturally important. It's commercially important and it's environmentally Important. I mean, it is it's it's criticality is something that I think probably is. When you look at the history of the Endangered Species Act, I think it probably is the single had the single biggest impact on the act, at least from my observation was that something is consistent with your own experience.
Randy Fisher 15:24
Yeah, definitely. I mean, if you look at, you know, once again, I mean, the amount of money to spend every year on salmon is humongous, Bonneville Power Administration, fish Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries. And if you look at congressionally, it's extremely important. And there's been a lot of, you know, people that are that are very supportive of the whole issue of salmon, including, you know, the Alaskan senators, and everyone. So what we're all trying to do is, you know, is this a balance between how many hatchery fish you have, what you're doing with the environment, and what you're doing in terms of allowing catch?
Thane Tienson 16:09
Yeah, you know, again, by way of background, I my recollection, again, correct me if I'm wrong is that these listings, the first petitions to list salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act date back to the early 90s, I want to say it was the Idaho sockeye runs that were as the first but that was followed in fairly rapid succession by other Columbia River species, particularly the upper river once again, where migration has been threatened by hydro power dams in particular, but loss of habitat as well. And then, by other salmon runs, not only along the Columbia River, but in coastal streams, and Oregon and Washington and in California. And because their migratory patterns extend into Alaska, it has also necessarily implicated those Alaskan salmon fisheries as well. And even the other non salmon fisheries, where salmon ends up being a bycatch species, correct?
Randy Fisher 17:11
Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you look at Southeast Alaska, most of the fish that are caught, they're out of the Colombians. So when you start looking at international because we have the Canadian Treaty, which was just basically almost reauthorized this year, it was. And so there's this whole, it's not only whether or not you're pitching him in the Columbia or off of our coasts as whether or not you're cashing in, in Canada or Alaska or any of those places in between. and and to complicate the issues, even more now is with climate change. It's going to be very, very difficult to deal with salmon in California, because the hot the water temperatures are, we're starting to see a lot of changes fast.
Thane Tienson 17:58
Well, climate change is such an important category, that it deserves a much longer discussion. And we will definitely get into that in just a moment, I wanted to talk a little bit more about salmon. And again, just for the benefit of our listening audience, though, about the Endangered Species Act, because once those species are listed, in this case, salmon, then there's a whole spate of restrictions and laws that and regulatory impacts that occur. And maybe you could kind of talk a little bit about that. And you even made reference to the so called God squad, but I suspect that there's a lot of people that are wondering just exactly what that is, and, and why these, the Endangered Species Act listings become so important and so impactful.
Randy Fisher 18:53
Well, basically, they become impactful because it limits the amount of cash you can have. I mean, that's the bottom line. I mean, the bottom line here really was salmon is whether you're a recreational fishery or your commercial fisheries, it's a way of life. If commercial fisheries, it's definitely a way of life, because that's how they make their living. So a lot of the community is dependent upon when you start dealing with a threatened Endangered Species Act are limited by how many of those wild fish you can take. And so you do the calculations on so you got to have a certain amount of returning fish in order to make sure that they perpetuated through time. So then you do the calculations and you say, Well, you can't fish. You can only catch X amount of fish period, or protect those wild fish. So it becomes a it's it's a total constraint. So if you're really running out of wild fish, then you got a problem. That's what we're all trying to deal with.
Thane Tienson 19:54
Yeah, and of course with with salmon, we're talking about a species that travels What 1000s of miles during the course of its lifetime. And, of course, during that 1000 miles, it isn't staying in a single state, or even in a single country. And for that reason, if you're going to be successful, even in part and trying to recover the species, you're going to have to have coordination among the various states, federal governments, including Canada, as well as Alaska and you've got two different fisheries, regional fisheries management councils then you've got to deal with as well but I write that Yeah, Pacific, which is what Oregon, Washington and California and then the North Pacific counsel,
Randy Fisher 20:38
right, which is just Alaska, basically but and then you have the other issues that we deal with here on the Columbia specifically and that is, we actually pay people to catch a fish called pike minnow, which eats small salmon going down the river. You've got birds that eat small salmon going down the river, you've got sea lions, so you have all of these other issues that you got to deal with because it's not just people catching the fish. It's everything else that's involved in the environment also. And and as as we've noticed over a period of time in the Columbia, specifically, other game fish are coming in walleye, pike everything else and they are also having an effect on small salmon so it's a complicated issue.
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Thane Tienson 23:11
So how are we doing? Are we are we winning the war or? Or is it too early to tell? Or what are the what are the challenges that we still faced with regard to to salmon recovery?
Randy Fisher 23:22
I say we're we've won the war. In some instances. The returns here on the Willamette this year probably aren't what they should be. And we've seen an A lot of that was due to sea lions there right at
Thane Tienson 23:37
sea lion predation.
Randy Fisher 23:39
Big time 25% of that stock has been eaten by sea lions. We're down to winter steelhead on a little ama, which is here to about 400 fish maybe. So they're almost done. So and again, maybe for the benefit of our listening audience. So sea lions, which are in turn, but protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and under federal law. So they are major predators of the salmon. And this year, finally, for the first time, in my 40 years that I've been involved in this thing, they Congress actually in the Senate, everybody's in the President signed, it allows for lethal take of sea lions for the first time in forever, basically. And that will make a difference because we you'd like you mentioned, they're protected by marine mammal act. And there's nothing we could do really until this year. So now we were actually trapping sea lions at the dams and off the wall and falls and that should make a big difference.
Thane Tienson 24:42
What about climate change, particularly as it affects, we'll talk about it versus it affects salmon but it's it's obviously a much broader and more important issue than just a salmon impactor. How is climate change affected? The work of the commission and fisheries generally here in the Pacific coast and including up until Alaska.
Randy Fisher 25:06
Well, what we're what we're seeing is that the climate of California is moving north. Now what that means basically, is that for salmon in specific, specifically for salmon, it means warmer water, harder for reproduction, more predators, you know, all of that kind of thing happening. If you go up further into Alaska, you're seeing changes because everything is moving north. So we don't know exactly, but we know what's going on. If you look at the snow melt now, here in Oregon, it's, you know, 110% of normal in some cases, which is really great. But we're looking at the fact that streams are drying up sooner. And that's an issue.
Thane Tienson 25:57
So what what are the biggest single factors then that that determine whether or not a salmon run and we're talking about? It isn't a single salmon species? It's the Chinook or King Salman, you've got sockeye or or red salmon, you got coho or Silver's, as they're known and, and then up in Alaska, you've got chum salmon or pink salmon. And as well, what determines whether or not those salmon will survive their multi year ordeal and returned to their Natal screens in spot? What are the biggest single factors and
Randy Fisher 26:40
the biggest single factors? That's an interesting question. I don't. I think it's more. I think it's dependent on where you are more than anything. I mean, I think that if you look at Southern California or parts of California, I think they are in real trouble. Because of water. Not enough of it and too warm and too warm. Yep. That's the big issue. Sacramento, which is a huge system, Klamath we've had problems for years, and the Klamath and that's our total water issue. You know, they want to remove the dams on the Klamath, that hasn't happened yet. If that does happen, that will be good. If you look at West Coast fisheries, a lot of the commercial fisheries are driven by what happens on the Klamath because once again, they're those fish are listed. And so you've got a certain number that you can catch, and therefore they shut off the commercial fishery. If you look in different if you come up to Oregon and Washington, you're once again, you're looking at the Columbia system, what's happening here? You go further north, and you're into Canadian fisheries, same thing. I mean, it's all related to what the water conditions are and food and upwelling, you know, the issues we've been having is you we got off of Oregon and the West Coast, the California drift that they refer to, there was not enough upwelling, and as a result of that there wasn't any feed. So you put fish out there to eat something in there, nothing for me.
Thane Tienson 28:08
Okay, the upwelling is this is the colder water that's for ocean nutrients. That is the critical for survival of addley salmon and other fish generally. So and just again, to give a broader perspective on salmon, so is it most of the salmon are heading north for their, during the course of their lives at sea? Is that correct? I mean, they're
Randy Fisher 28:32
Yeah, the ones out well, you have South turning salmon also, but most of them out about where we are here, they have North
Thane Tienson 28:40
All right. And yet when they return, they're returning collectively you get a so called mixed stock return so that you've got some fish coming back into the Colombian IT system, others coming into the coastal streams others coming back into to the Klamath or or further south of Sacramento system. And in order to save them or to help at least limit their mortality, you've got to limit or constrain the amount of fish that are caught, particularly in the ocean. Correct. All right. And that means just basically what you're, you're you're managing yours, you're limiting the seasons that are the length of the season.
Randy Fisher 29:23
Yeah, and so everybody understand they don't all coho come back in a different time. So you get fish coming back at different times. So you're not out there fishing on all of them at the same time. So you you split the seasons up that way. And then you can do the calculations on what is the harbor pool surplus and then you open the fishery and we watch the fishery closely. Some people thought that you can manage it by tagging certain fish and if you catch them and you would analyze that, and then you can open the fishery or close it off daily. Well, that's, that's not real. I mean, you can't do that. It would be so expensive. It wouldn't be funny. And it just doesn't. It's not practical. So we try to manage around, you know, dates in general, that kind of thing.
Thane Tienson 30:15
All right. And that's the, the process. And is it fair to call it a negotiating process? In part at least? Or is it? Is it really driven by the science?
Randy Fisher 30:25
Well, it's a negotiating process to start with, because you, you're going to the council's Pacific Council, the North Pacific Council, first of all have to figure out how many fish can caught, then you have the negotiations between the allocations of those fishes that are commercial fishery? Are they going to be recreational? Or what's it going to be? So they have to go through all that what we do here at the commission is we supply them the information, we don't make the management decisions. We just give them information used to argue over the numbers. People don't argue over the numbers anymore. They argue over the allocation. All right. And that's what our job is here. So we're neutral territory. People don't argue about our numbers, they they just argue about who should catch it.
Thane Tienson 31:08
All right. And so when you say they don't argue about our numbers, what I'm hearing you say is that the science of predicting the likelihood of returning abundance, if you will, is pretty well established these days. And I presume that climate change itself? I mean, it may be in Washington, DC in some quarters, there's some dispute about it. But is it fair to say that it's a widely accepted phenomenon here in the fisheries management world?
Randy Fisher 31:38
Yes. I think that's fair to say. Definitely.
Thane Tienson 31:41
And how is it? Again, going back to the practicalities of climate change? What kind of research is being done to to find out what not only the impacts will be in the short run, but in the longer term? And what kind of what are the impacts that's going to have not only on salmon fisheries, but on ocean conditions? And the the other fisheries throughout the North Pacific and Pacific Coast that that the Commission deals with? Well,
Randy Fisher 32:14
I think well, no fisheries themselves, they're doing a lot of study trying to figure
Thane Tienson 32:18
out a NOAA Fisheries just again, to be clear. That's been it federal national National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they're the people that at the federal level, the primary federal fisheries agency, although they're assisted by, I guess, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, at least when those salmon enter. in freshwater, right,
Randy Fisher 32:42
yeah. Yeah, so no fisheries has been, NOAA has been doing a lot of climate change activities. We are only involved because we're looking at now. Changes in the ocean. off Newport, specifically, we're getting involved in aquaculture, here. And part of the issue there is so if you have a warm blob, like we do off the west coast in some years, just in an area that is much warmer than the surrounding waters rack
Thane Tienson 33:17
How large are these blobs?
Randy Fisher 33:20
Well, the one off Newport was huge, you know, I mean, I don't mind I don't know how many miles it was. But what it does, it affects like the Dungeness crab fishery, big time, we shut off all the fisheries because of the mo ik acid, which is a result of warmer water, basically, no upwelling. So that's a phenomena based on what we think is climate change, but we're not, you know, I mean, who knows what it is, but that's what happens every few years. So we're looking at issues like that. So we can help determine whether or not the fishery should move forward, because of the amount of food that will be available for whether it's Dungeness crab or whether it's salmon or whether it's whatever. So that's some of the studies that are happening right now.
Thane Tienson 34:09
So as far as the technology is, how do you as a practical matter, do you? Do you monitor ocean conditions? I mean, how is that?
Randy Fisher 34:20
Well, NOAA Fisheries has a number of buoys out there that are taking samples daily, in terms of temperature, and salinity, and all those sorts of things. Once again, we aren't specifically directly involved in that. But we are involved in the sense of being able at some point, hopefully being able to predict whether or not ocean conditions are going to be a safe favorable for salmon fry that go out or whether or not it's not going to be in in two years, you're going to have to really cut back on the fishery. Ideally, that's what would happen.
Thane Tienson 34:54
How far into the future are you able to confidently predict what ocean conditions will look like.
Randy Fisher 35:03
Probably, well, every once in a while you'll see them come out and say there's going to be an El Nino or not, or whatever it's going to be. And that's usually about a year out. Beside that, I mean, it's difficult part from that
Thane Tienson 35:18
you're really in a little guesswork. Yeah. You mentioned El Nino. And again, for those who may not be familiar with that phenomena, what is it
Randy Fisher 35:28
is basically a warming of changing the atmosphere. So you you're, you end up with a lot warmer ocean than than we had before more rain, usually warmer conditions.
Thane Tienson 35:39
And then it's, and I'm using the term bag. jokingly, it's it's evil twin linea. Right, which is, and that's just the opposite. Yeah. And is there a cycle that seems to be or a pattern that those, those, the El Nino linea phenomena follow? No, I don't think so. So it's really something that has a profound effect on on fisheries and ocean conditions. But still, we're not certain whether there is an established pattern or if there is what it is. So what about in terms of the importance of Fisheries generally? And as you mentioned, you you actually pay attention to both the commercial and recreational fisheries correct. But as I presume the commercial in terms of the both the amount of time you devote to it, and just their overall importance is predominantly commercial. Is that fair?
Randy Fisher 36:41
Yeah, we don't. Well, we still can't Well, we do both things. We count all the recreational catch, we count all the commercial catch. The most, the most lucrative fishery on the west coast, the one that pays the most money is Dungeness crab, which is, you know, not salmon, and it's not groundfish, nor anything else. That by far is the most lucrative meaning, best income for the West Coast. And all of the communities that are affected by that fishery.
Thane Tienson 37:11
And and just again, so we're clear that we're talking about the Washington, Oregon, California Dungeness crab fishery, which I guess extends into to a portion of key Well, certainly Canada and a little bit of Southeast Alaska, but correct.
Randy Fisher 37:30
Yeah, the bulk of it, though, is on I mean, if you deal with just yet does, but we're mostly concentrating on just Washington, Oregon and California.
Thane Tienson 37:39
And how is that fishery managed? And why is it so important?
Randy Fisher 37:45
In theory, the fishery opens December one, to take advantage of the Christmas season. And it's managed by the commercial fleet and only allow, you're only allowed to catch a male crab. And they have to be a little over six inches in size on the back. So it's managed, and it's been managed that way for 3540 years. Yeah, it's a
Thane Tienson 38:08
sec season size, as I always think of it, management regime, but is, as I understand it, that has really worked well to sustain the the ocean Dungeness crab fishery, because you, you make sure you don't harvest them during the time they're molding and basically, breeding, if you will, and you don't keep the females and you can throw them back with a fair amount of confidence. they'll survive. Absolutely.
Randy Fisher 38:35
Yeah, it's been a very well, man. I mean, it works out very well actually. We've had a few problems with the whole thing of warm water, and the more like acid with them. Basically, they're this managed by processing folks and the market, because they want to make sure that there's 25% meat in each of the crabs before they'll take it to the market. So we actually do test fisheries, the Manage out of here, we have a thing called a price state Dungeness crab Council Committee that watches this closely. And so that's how the process has worked.
Thane Tienson 39:20
So digest crab, of course, that's what we always associate with the Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. And but it's it's equally important I looking just looking at the numbers, I was surprised to see just how more valuable it is than any other species here in the three western states. So he but you talked about domoic acid, is that something that appears to be related to climate change as well.
Randy Fisher 39:48
I would guess so Yes. Probably.
Thane Tienson 39:51
And that's it. What is that? One of these algal blooms
Randy Fisher 39:54
that correct? So and then what they do is you watch like, how crabs will eat razor clams and so razor clams may get the more wick acid in them so they'll shut down not only the razor pram, fishery recreate, you know, fishery, that then the effect goes right to Dungeness crab. The biggest fear we have now is that entanglement with whales.
Thane Tienson 40:18
Now let's talk about that. Because that said, this is fairly recent, as I understand it,
Randy Fisher 40:24
yes, this this, and California just did a just settled a lawsuit last week, for a couple years and basically what that lawsuit says they've divided up California by districts. And if you see the ocean, you're talking ocean, correct. And if they get a whale entangle in one district, then they can shut the fishery out in that area. And if they see 20 or more whales in one area, they can shut that fishery down in that area.
Thane Tienson 40:55
And so the entanglements occur because they, they use pots right or traps for to catch the crabs that are resting on the bottom of the pots are and they're then their location is marked by a rope or a line if you will attach the buoys Correct. Correct. And is it is it just the kind of the intensity of the location of these buoys and traps that that causes the whales to become entangled as they migrate?
Randy Fisher 41:23
Yeah, most of the whales are humpback whales. And if you know what a humpback whale looks like, they have huge fins that go off to the side when they go through crab pots. I mean, each crab fisherman is allowed seven, five to 700 pots out there. So you're dealing in 1000s of pots. So the issue is, when to shut the fishery off, most of the whales are coming up in April, early April. So in California, they've decided now to shut the fishery down on April the first. And that should help quite a bit. But we have had a number of whale last year, I think there was 78 whale entanglements that we know of. And so the whales pick up these Dungeness crab pots, and they get entangled. And some of them, they go out and try and cut the pots off. It's very difficult, it's dangerous. So we're trying to figure out ways of alleviating that problem, whether it's crab pots that don't have lines, they're looking into that kind of thing. But I don't know how well that would work. Because you wouldn't know whether you're dumping your pots on somebody else's pots and all that kind of stuff. So
Thane Tienson 42:31
you mentioned the lawsuit that that prompted this. And this, too, is something that I suspect you've seen a lot of over the many decades, you've been involved in, in fisheries management is the role of litigation and lawsuits. Is that fair? And of course, that's what I do for a living too. So
Randy Fisher 42:55
that's fair. Yeah. I mean, the problem with the lawsuits, I think, to some degree is that, you know, much better than I do that. Who pays for it? I mean, it doesn't necessarily cost anybody to go sue somebody, especially if the government loses because guess what the government was paying for it? So that's part of the issue, I think. Yeah. The,
Thane Tienson 43:18
I mean, the reality is that the Federal environmental laws that were passed in the 1970s, beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act, but an extending into the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, there's a number of them, but but many of them in Endangered Species Act as one actually provide for an award of attorneys fees to a prevailing party. And of course, that's one of the if not an incentive, it is certainly something that helps promote the willingness to file a lawsuit. And many of these are done, of course, in the name of environmental groups whose mission is to conserve the species. And there's I don't think there's any doubt that the vast majority are brought by well intentioned folks concerned about this, but it's a it's a pretty blunt instrument. Sometimes, right. Yeah. Do you have a sense? I mean, just thinking about it is, is the role of litigation on balance been positive one or the other? Can you be a little more nuanced about it and or is there something that should be done to to maybe curb the proliferation of these lawsuits? Because they affect the way we we deal with fisheries management?
Randy Fisher 44:46
That's an interesting question. You know, if I were to look back and think about the lawsuits the the deal with some of the marine mammal issues, specifically I think it's been a little unfair. I think if you look at some of the lawsuits that were related to wolves or some of the other animals that were concerned about, I think that part of the issue really comes down to whether or not the environmental group or the NGO or whoever it may be, is making sure that they are getting more members. That's part of the issue. I mean, how do you know I mean, it's one thing to take a picture of a baby seal and say, Oh, this is terrible. You know, we, we got to protect every one of these. Well, we have 750,000 seals, and sea lions, and it's causing a huge issue.
Thane Tienson 45:41
Yeah, that's one of the the, I think, lesser known facts. It probably was sea lions is that we're not talking about a threatened or endangered species that we're talking about record levels of abundance, for the most part. Yeah. Yeah. So you we mentioned the whales, the humpbacks in particular, and I guess they're blue whales that are impacted by that crab fishery. One of the other whale species has been in the news a lot in the fisheries world, here in the Pacific Northwest recently is the Orca whale and in particular, that Southern resident population what's what's the issue there?
Randy Fisher 46:21
It's interesting. On the west coast and Alaska, there's there's basically two groups of killer whales. There's which I call the biker killer whales. Those live off the west coast. And they basically feed on marine mammals and other things seals, sea lions. And then the threatened endangered were the ones are worried about are the basically in Pacific Puget Sound area, and the San Juan Island area. And they basically just eat Chinook salmon large and examine. They're kind of targeted on an exam when the wait like 30 pounds. So that group is in trouble. And that's an issue. It's a serious issue. We're working with the Canadians trying to figure out what to do whether or not we're one of the options now is to increase hatchery production to try and take care of it. So they're just not calving. And that's a problem.
Thane Tienson 47:17
Yeah, I was surprised when I looked into this issue in preparation for our conversation today. And there's less than 675 members in total, now that those Southern resident population and they eat at least they should be eating 100 to 300 pounds of salmon a day. And yeah, at some point, so what are the options? Just more entry have been mentioned in these tax reproduction? Are there any other options on the table there that can help address that issue?
Randy Fisher 47:50
I haven't heard of any. I think they actually had a last time I heard the other day that there was one that they've actually had a calf this year, which will be the first time in years and then, you know, earlier last year, that killer whale drug us baby around dead for two weeks, which was just totally sad. And so that really highlighted the issue. I mean, people you know, they know every one of the whales up there who by name, basically. So you know, what you're dealing with, like you said, 75 is getting to a point where they may not be sustainable. Yeah, it's clearly a, an endangered species.
Thane Tienson 48:27
So let's talk about climate change a little bit more as it relates to the North Pacific area. Are we seeing effects up there as well?
Randy Fisher 48:37
Yeah, I mean, the fisheries are moving further north. I mean, the biggest fishery in North Pacific is Hey, and that they know are moving north. And so the Pollock or the Yeah, you got basically a POC fishery. What we call waiting or haik is
Thane Tienson 48:57
used to be a
Randy Fisher 48:59
billion dollar fishery. I mean, this is big time stuff. And there's a couple of concerns. There's a number of concerns by some of the various communities up there over whether or not that fishery is taken salmon is a bycatch large number. I don't think that's been proven yet necessarily. The other concern our crab fisheries up there because of changing climate change. So
Thane Tienson 49:26
the king crab, crab, yes.
Randy Fisher 49:29
So there are some concerns about that. We've been paying disaster money into the Yukon system, because the salmon returns are real low. And we've been doing a number of research projects up there for to try and figure out what's going on with with those stocks, specifically the Yukon, huge River. Huge fisheries supports like 27 villages up into the Yukon says So
Thane Tienson 50:01
I was looking at the value of those. And the volume of catches in Alaska is clearly our largest fishery nationally. And the Pollak fishery here, you're right, it's, it's by far the most valuable. So you mentioned the issue with bycatch. And again, what do we mean by that? And, and and how do you how do you address it?
Randy Fisher 50:26
Well, bycatch is basically related to a trawl fishery, where there are actually, it's a mixed dock fishery. So you're, you're dragging a large net around, trying to catch whatever you're targeting. So by catches, if you are targeting Pollock, for example, you may run into some salmon, so the bycatch there would be the salmon and you're not targeting that fishery. But you're, you're actually catching those. So that's the that's what bycatch is all about. And that that basically affects every commercial fishery, where your Net Fishing, or even longline fishing, actually, because you'd still get bycatch on that also, but that's what it's about.
Thane Tienson 51:07
Okay. One of the ways in which we've seen concerns about Fisheries and Oceans generally addressed in recent years has been these marine protected areas, do you? And maybe you can talk a little bit about them as well. And And is that something that we've seen here used as a tool and, and what's been your experience with it?
Randy Fisher 51:34
Well, marine protected areas were based have been basically set up over the last, I don't know, I'd say probably most of them over the last 20 years or less. The idea was that you can set almost like a, a park, like Yellowstone or something where you were actually protecting everything that's in there. And as a result of that, you'll produce more fish from the outside. Ultimately, there's been a lot of discussions about the success for those, there's been a lot of discussion now. They're protected, basically. So if you're a commercial fisherman, you carry a GPS that tells you exactly where you are, and you're not allowed to go into those areas. So we've been monitoring those courses. I don't think there's been a lot of research to figure out whether or not it's been a positive effect by having marine protected areas in terms of being able to produce more fish or not. But
Thane Tienson 52:34
that's the idea. What what other kinds of research does the commission involve itself in and and how does the commission determine what research to undertake?
Randy Fisher 52:44
We basically Well, we have these discussions at our annual meeting about the kind of research that we do here. We, we do research now we're doing we just went out with a request for proposals on aquaculture, some aquaculture facilities, mainly for oysters, not for finfish. So we're not involved in finfish aquaculture on the West Coast or in Alaska. We're involved in aquaculture projects for oysters and seaweed and those sorts of things. So we're doing research on that, to try and figure out whether there's genetic differences and those sorts of things.
Thane Tienson 53:25
Yeah, I mean, it seems to be that there's been an enormous increase in aquaculture, and particularly as it relates to, to salmon internationally. I don't know that we've seen that same phenomenon here in the United States. And, and whether that's a good thing or not, I know there's concerns about Aqua culture and particularly, for net pins, and maybe you can talk a little bit about that.
Randy Fisher 53:54
Yeah, there's, there's a big push now by the Department of Commerce nationally for agriculture, because 90% of the fish that we United States are actually not from this country. So there's a big concern about that. NET pin activities on the West Coast or limited. May, there was some in Port Angeles for a while, and those have now been shut down. And when you do aquaculture on the west coast, they're the only they've been using Atlantic salmon and not Pacific salmon. But if you think about it, our hatchery systems, probably the biggest aquaculture system in the world. Think about what we do in terms of salmon, because that's basically our culture, our own facilities. So, you know, it's an interesting argument when you think about it. A lot of commercial fishermen don't want to have net pens or anything because they're concerned that it will replace what they do. So we don't do that. Well, I
Thane Tienson 54:56
mean, in fairness, though, there have been and I'm thinking about Particular of the of the problem that was experienced in Puget Sound, I want to say just within the last year or two where storms occurred during the winter months, suddenly these net pens are breached. You've got hatchery fish, these, which are a different species, I've heard that the the more domesticated Atlantic salmon that are suddenly interacting with wild salmon, there's disease concerns, because anytime you're you're propagating large numbers of Aqua cultured fish together, there's an opportunity for disease that disease then can spread to two wild populations that are nearby. And, I mean, it seems to be a legitimate concern. And yet, as you say, we're in a world where we need to be increasing agricultural production, simply to meet the needs of people and to protect our wild population. So what about closed containment systems that are used for some? I know they use it for for some sturgeon populations and trout for Sam, sila? Is that a potential solution?
Randy Fisher 56:12
I think it probably would be I mean, I don't I think it comes down to you know, the costs. I mean, warehouser, in Newport, as you will probably will recall, had a huge facility where they were actually doing Aqua culture making their own private hatchery omos for coho. And they did that on a calculation of return of 4%. Well, that never happened. They got about 1% back, and basically, the whole thing shut down after a few years because they were losing money on it. So I think it comes down to money to you know, to a large extent, there's been a lot of work off of California to figure out whether or not he could use old or oil derricks that are their existing, and whether you could do net pan activities often close. But they haven't been permitted. The biggest problem everybody's having now is trying to get a permit because there's so many agencies involved in the feds are trying to look at ways of streamlining that whole effort. I don't think you will ever see it off of our coasts here. It just doesn't seem practical to do nepenthes stuff. I mean, it just, you know, the water, it's too deep, all that kind of thing. So I don't think you'll ever see it number one, and and this commission will never support it. So we're not involved in it necessarily.
Thane Tienson 57:27
So what are the challenges? Looking ahead the next couple of years? What are the largest challenges that you face here at the commission, and that our Fisheries and Oceans face?
Randy Fisher 57:42
I think travel well, climate change. I mean, the effects of what we're learning, obviously, is one of the things that we're trying to figure out. I mean, this whole thing with if you look at the money, aspect of stuff we already talked about, but the fear over what's happened with the Dungeness fishery. And what that means in the community is is a big issue. The other issue is, we are we have more requests for disaster relief, because we've been shutting fisheries down the whole question of what's happening up north, in terms of Pollock fishery and those sorts of things. There's been some concerns that recruitment isn't happening fast enough. You're getting the younger fish,
Thane Tienson 58:30
essentially, to reproduce to sustain the fishery? That's correct.
Randy Fisher 58:34
And there's concerns over the fleet, I mean, the fleet meaning going out and trying to calculate what's going on in the fishery, and to allow the, like the Hague fishery to happen. That's a money issue in terms of being able to use research fish, or research vessels are very expensive. And there's not a lot of money. And that's an issue. So how
Thane Tienson 59:00
do we fund it then going forward? It sounds like we've got some definite needs for more work to be done. How are you funded now? And what are the funding challenges that that are faced so
Randy Fisher 59:14
we basically, most of the money that comes to us that we do that we pass through all comes through the National Marine Fishery Service?
Thane Tienson 59:25
budget, which is the federal NOAA Fisheries budget,
Randy Fisher 59:29
we have a firm so our budgets around 70 million a year 60 to 70 million, and then we pass most of that money through. So what we do we go back on behalf of the states and we'll help lobby for National Marine Fisheries Service funding of these programs for the for all the data programs that we manage here that the money call comes from Congress. So that's how we get our funding. And that's how the states then go out and do what their jobs are on the Columbia Law fair amount of the money comes from Bonneville Power Administration. And that's fairly constant. So whatever happened with the federal budgets is a big concern to all of us that are involved in fisheries.
Thane Tienson 1:00:16
And just looking at the role of the federal government, I mean, there's always been this tension between federal management and state management. Have we got the balance? Right. Do you think?
Randy Fisher 1:00:30
Yeah, I think on the West Coast here, it's it's different in the East Coast, they seem to have more issues, and we do here. I mean, I think that management on the west coast in Alaska seems to be pretty stable. There seems to be agreement in most cases, like what the council does, I mean, their arguments at the Council level, but I think the fisheries is pretty well. Everybody respects what goes on here.
Thane Tienson 1:00:59
So are you an optimist about the health of our Oceans and Fisheries here on the Pacific Coast going forward?
Randy Fisher 1:01:06
Thane Tienson 1:01:09
And why do you say that?
Randy Fisher 1:01:12
Well, I think what, I'm an optimist, but I'm a little discouraged in one sense. I mean, what the West Coast and Alaska have functioned well over a number of years, because of the people involved, and the interest by congressional folks and all that. And when you start losing that interest, then that's a problem. And I think we've seen that a lot with in the case, some of the major tribal people have died and gone on. And that's affected what's going on. So depending on who you have in some of these positions of leadership of leadership is really, really important.
Thane Tienson 1:01:53
And speaking of leadership, what what, what are Randy Fisher's plans for the future? Oh,
Randy Fisher 1:02:00
probably just, I still enjoy what I do. And we're fairly influential, actually, in terms of national fisheries activities, probably more than most people know. Like I said, we like to fly under the radar, but we get stuff done. It should be the way that a lot of government works really.
Thane Tienson 1:02:22
Since the line for taking credit this the law was I forget anything says it's short. Randy Fisher, thank you so very much for your time. There's no question but that the Pacific States Marine Fisheries commission enjoys a wonderful reputation nationally, and that's due in no small part to your leadership. So thank you all. Thank
Unknown Speaker 1:02:46