By Matt Schubert
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The Lake Sutherland community has come out in full force since news hit of a proposed five-year fishing moratorium of the Elwha River watershed, including the 361-acre basin.
They filled a Peninsula College classroom more than 100-strong to share their opinion with fishery managers at a public meeting in mid-December.
They wrote dozens of letters during a one-month public comment period.
And now that the state Fish and Wildlife Commission is just two weeks away from possibly taking action at a public meeting in Olympia, they're passing around a petition that's garnered nearly 300 signatures in just one week.
Their message: Close the Elwha if that's what's needed, just don't take away our lake.
"My thought is if I can get hundreds of people to say, 'Hey, we're not OK with this,' maybe they will take notice," said Becca Yucha of Port Angeles, organizer of a petition asking to keep Sutherland open in 2011.
Apparently, that's the case.
Biologists believe Sutherland, which drains into the Elwha via Indian Creek, could become a spawning ground for sockeye salmon once the Elwha dams are removed by 2014.
Thus, it was part of the proposed fishing moratorium crafted by Elwha watershed restoration managers -- the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Olympic National Park -- last year.
The idea is to allow salmon every opportunity to recolonize the river and its tributaries while they deal with the strain of the dam removal (i.e. excess sediment and altered spawning grounds).
After so many have come out in opposition to Sutherland's inclusion, however, the state is now considering other options.
At a public Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting earlier this month, state biologists provided three management alternatives for the Elwha in the years before and after the dams are removed.
One included the possibility of a modified fishery for Sutherland, Fish and Wildlife Regional Fish Program Manager Ron Warren said.
"I wasn't at the Fish Commission meeting," Warren said, "but I know direction came back to have discussions with parties that have been part of the restoration plan . . . to see if there's some room to structure some kind of fishery in Lake Sutherland."
To that end, Warren said he plans to meet with tribal and Olympic National Park fisheries biologists to discuss possible options.
"It's on my list to call them as well and see if we can arrange some time to sit down and talk about Lake Sutherland specifically," Warren said.
"Would a Lake Sutherland fishery have a dramatic impact on those returning fish if they make it there?
"That's what I hope the discussion is about."
Whether that will lead to some sort of compromise is up in the air.
The way Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Fishers Manager Doug Morrill sounded Thursday, there does appear to be some wiggle room.
"Our preference would be for a total closure, but I think we're willing to leave options on the table," Morrill said.
"One of our biggest concerns is the sport fishery is not monitored at all, so we do not know what is being caught out of that lake.
"If the state does want to continue with a sport fishery, our preference would be that it would be monitored a little more closely than it has in the past and that it doesn't make it year round."
Added Morrill, "In our mind it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have a moratorium throughout the whole watershed and not include Lake Sutherland.
"Indian Creek is a tributary, obviously, and we think the lake will also be a valuable refuge for fish during the dam removal.
"We believe there are important stocks residing there."
Among them are the lake's resident kokanee (landlocked salmon) and cutthroat.
Neither is a likely candidate to migrate out into the ocean, but there is a chance some could spawn with returning anadramous fish.
Of course, nobody knows any of this for sure.
And that's part of the problem Sutherland supporters like Yucha have with the moratorium.
Some of the questions asked by the public have yet to be answered, including what the criteria would be for reopening the lake once the moratorium is up.
"We really should try to get some answers before we say that's it, we're closing everything," Yucha said.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that I absolutely would oppose the closure of Lake Sutherland, but you had a lot of people ask questions [at the Dec. 15 public meeting in Port Angeles] that you don't have answers to."
The commission will consider adoption of the proposal at a meeting scheduled Feb. 4-5 in Olympia.
Those interested in signing the petition can visit http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/lakesutherland/.
Public comments can also be submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Commission at email@example.com.
Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column regularly appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.