Brothers Dave and Tim Hamilton are taking on what they say are systemic problems with the way the state Fish & Wildlife Department is managing fisheries on the Chehalis River, problems they allege are caused by commercial gillnetters and a lack of production in the state’s hatcheries.
And they’re doing it all using the Fish & Wildlife Department’s own public records. They call it Fishileaks, a riff on the term WikiLeaks, an effort to make public thousands of classified leaked memos and documents tackling federal diplomatic secrets. In the Hamiltons’ case, they’re relying on the state Public Records Act to get their documents, not an individual leaking information.
So far, they’ve received more than two gigabytes worth of data. and they’ve uploaded most of it to their website at http://fishingthechehalis.net. But, they say, there’s a lot more out there that the state agency hasn’t turned over, despite six record requests since November of 2011.
“It’s plain and simple,” Dave Hamilton says. “The public has a right to know how these resources are being managed, not what they perceive or have heard — to actually know and look and see what simple terms are made that affect it. It’s about transparency.”
Representing Dave Hamilton is Joe Frawley of the Olympia law firm of Rodgers Kee & Pearson. Together, they’re now suing the state Fish & Wildlife Department, citing multiple violations of the state Public Records Act. The lawsuit was filed April 1 in Thurston County Superior Court. Dave says he got to know Frawley because they are both fishermen.
Dave lives in Central Park right along the banks of the Chehalis River and has spent decades as a volunteer coordinator working in the Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay coastal regions. He’s a current member of the Grays Harbor Advisory Board, reviewing fishing practices in the Chehalis and was appointed directly by Fish & Wildlife Director Phil Anderson.
Tim lives in McCleary and is the director of the Automotive United Trade Organization, where he keeps tabs on gas prices and regulations and represents independent gas stations across the country. He’s a known public speaker and makes consistent appearances on television and radio talking about his insights.
“Dave knows more about fish after 30 years in this river than you can imagine,” Tim says. “He worked for Weyerhaeuser and they even gave him a three-year leave of absence to work for the Chehalis Fisheries Taskforce.”
Both of them say they love recreational fishing but have become frustrated with the bureaucratic procedures used to set fishing seasons.
“So I had knowledge and I had some documents and I was able to explain to Tim what was going on and he understands it, just barely, but if I tried to explain it to people, their eyes will glaze over,” Dave says.
“You know this but you have to prove it,” Tim said he told Dave. “So here we crafted a partnership where his goal is to fish and have expertise on the river and my job was to deliver what he knew and what all these old-timers knew, because we had a dozen other people involved here who gave us input.”
They came together and produced a series of polished videos that they posted on their website to explain how they perceive Fish & Wildlife is setting their season and focusing more on gillnetters than they should.
“It was just an evolution,” Dave says. “It wasn’t like we intended to go on some stinking crusade. But when Tim turned toward the videos, it was amazing.”
At the start of every fishing season, the Fish & Wildlife Department gives the Quinault Nation their fair share of the catch, as determined by Indian Treaty and backed up by court decisions. The Hamiltons say they have no issues with those decisions. Dave says that the tribes have become “an unfair scapegoat,” when he says that the tribes are doing what their treaty allows them to do.
However, the agency also opens the season up to commercial gillnetters who sit in the Chehalis River and flank the river with 13 to 19 nets for several days at a time, preventing a good number of fish from getting up the river to spawn or be caught by recreational fishermen, who pay annual fees to go fishing. Gillnetters are granted in excess of 80 percent of the salmon available to non-tribal fishermen each year, the Hamilton brothers say.
“As recreational fishermen find it increasingly difficult to actually catch a fish, the over harvesting prevents adequate numbers of salmon from reaching the spawning grounds and our stocks of salmon continue on a downward trend,” Dave says.
The gillnetters are only supposed to catch coho salmon, but some caught chum and Chinook, as well, which are supposed to be released back into the wild, based on video the Hamilton brothers took and documents they received from Fish & Wildlife.
“A coho is a silver salmon and that is the target species because we have lots of them,” Dave explains. “The other ones, which we don’t have lots of, they can’t keep. So they take them out and throw them over board.”
At one point, they decided to catch in action the “incidental” fish that the gillnetters were catching and releasing back into the Chehalis River. What they discovered, and videotaped, at least on one day last year, is that the majority of the fish caught and released were flung back into the Harbor, where it appeared as though they were immediately devoured by seagulls and sea lions or died in the process. The video is called the “Chehalis Fling.”
“The Fish & Wildlife agency works off of spread sheets and paper models that say that 45 out of 100 of these fish are supposed to survive,” Tim says. “But what we saw, what we have video of, is they killed most of them when they released them back into the river. It’s cooking the books.”
“They short recreational fishermen all the way to Lewis County, even though the books show that 55 paper fish got up here and spawned,” Dave says. “Well, they didn’t. So, each year, our runs don’t restore. They get smaller. It’s creative accounting. … This situation could exist nowhere else in this state but this basin because the upriver is conservative and down here it’s Democrat and you don’t have the groups working together and talking.”
“Tens of millions of dollars are spent on getting the salmon to come home and yet they kill them at the Chehalis River Bridge bridge and the public doesn’t know it,” Tim added. “This is a system that has evolved since 1880 and is still stuck in 1880 and the thought is the only good fish is a dead fish. They’re stuck trying to take all of this subsidy and put it in a handful of nets. These fish are not surviving because of Fish & Wildlife, they’re surviving despite them.”
Among the documents that the brothers are seeking are letters detailing the agency’s interactions with the Quinault Indian Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, as well as the raw data the agency uses to set up its salmon fishing seasons, particularly in what’s called the “North of Falcon” process in the Chehalis Basin and Willapa Bay. Dave says he’s received power point presentations but not the raw information that led up to the creation of those documents.
“I’m tired of fighting them in record requests,” Dave says. “The only option left was to go to court.”
Ron Warren, the Region 6 Fish & Wildlife Director in charge of fisheries on the Chehalis River, says he’s not seen the Hamiltons’ website nor watched any of the videos. But he says he’s heard about them.
“I know that many of the documents he has are public documents he received from us and they do offer their interpretation of how we manage fisheries,” Warren said.
Warren said he’s heard the complaint that gillnetters get an unfair share of the fish and considers it a fair complaint. He notes recent budget cuts have reduced production in local hatcheries.
Jim Tuggle, a columnist with the trade journal Reel News, applauds the effort the Hamilton brothers are making.
“Fishingthechehalis.net cuts through a lot of the bureaucratic baloney and translates the techno jargon of harvest plans and reports, provides documentation and a few videos to support their claims that the recreational fishing community and the conservationists are both getting short changed in the salmon management schemes of the Chehalis Basin and, Fishingthechehalis.net has the statistics to support their claim,” Tuggle wrote in a column last month. “I believe in the accuracy of their claims.”
Dr. Francis V. Estalilla, a recreational fishermen and a member of Fish & Wildlife’s Grays Harbor Advisory Group from Aberdeen, said he has become a huge fan of Fishingthechehalis.net.
Estalilla points out that the data shows, right there in black and white, that Fish & Wildlife has only met its “escapement” goals of salmon getting to the headwaters of the Chehalis River three times in 15 years.
“If I were to blind four out of every five eyes, how long would I last in my profession?” the eye doctor asked. “We’re missing the mark four out of every five times. It’s enough time that I raised four daughters to high school, college and beyond. …
“I’m sick and tired of not enough fish getting to the gravel and people upriver not getting their fair share. The whole system is set up so that the river gets fed last.”
Estalilla points out that even Fish & Wildlife’s own studies show that recreational fishing puts more into the economy than gillnetting does.
“Now that gillnetting is being phased out of the Columbia River, that leaves Willapa and here in Grays Harbor, where it only happens,” he said.