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Debate Continues over Steelhead Bycatch in Lower River Fishery

by Bill Bakke
NW Fishletter, September 13, 2002

Last spring, a test fishery took place on the lower Columbia River using tangle tooth nets, which allowed commercial fishermen to release wild chinook and steelhead, but keep hatchery-raised fish for sale. The hatchery-raised fish sported a clipped adipose fin, so wild fish could be spotted easily, resuscitated in a small tank and returned to the river.

However, the smaller-mesh net, designed to keep fish from becoming gilled, caught more steelhead than expected. The catch ended up exceeding catch allocations for both ESA-listed steelhead and upriver spring chinook. The fishery caught more steelhead than chinook-- 22,000 of them, while landing almost 15,000 chinook-- and created an uproar among fish conservation groups.

The higher-than-expected bycatch of winter steelhead did not surprise fishermen. "The 5.5-inch mesh net caused a steelhead problem, and we knew it would," said gillnetter Jack Marincovich, executive secretary of the Columbia River Fisherman's Protective Union. State fishery agencies allowed the test fishery to use 5.5-inch mesh because that is what the fishermen had available.

NOAA Fisheries' Enrique Patino told Columbia River Compact agencies that the federal harvest limit for the steelhead ESU is 2 percent. "The 2002 tangle net fishery likely exceeded that limit, and possibly by a significant margin," said Patino. Asked if there were any consequences for violation of federal regulations to protect threatened steelhead, he said there were none. "However, we are encouraging the states to do a better job in the 2003 fishery, " Patino said. "We therefore recommend that you move aggressively... this is not time for half-measures."

Terry Turner of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited recommended a 3.5-inch mesh size and asked the Compact agencies to "do everything to reduce steelhead harvest in 2003." Jim Myron, conservation director of Oregon Trout, said that his organization and Washington Trout believe the fishery is " proposed."

A study has begun to determine the mortality rate of steelhead released from the nets, but a new fishery rule will be adopted before the long-term mortality study is completed in October. "Management is out in front of the data," said WDFW's Bill Tweit.

The Compact proposed adoption of a 4.25-inch mesh net with an expected steelhead harvest rate of 4 percent. By comparison, a 3.5-inch mesh net would have an estimated harvest rate of 1 percent. The dilemma for harvest managers is that while the 3.5-inch mesh may meet the NOAA Fishery standard for steelhead bycatch, the spring chinook catch per unit of effort is low compared to the larger mesh net.

As NW Fishletter was going online, compact members were still negotiating over the size of next year's mesh. But some changes are already in the offing. ODFW's Steve King said that commercial fishermen would be required to also use an "excluder net" with a 12-inch mesh at the top to allow steelhead to swim over the net. To encourage the commercial fishermen to use this new device, they will be allowed to increase the size of their nets by 25 fathoms. In addition, harvest managers advised fishermen to use large recovery boxes on board their boats. A 48-inch-long box will be required after next year.

In 2003, the fishermen will be allowed to use the boxes they constructed for this year's fishery. King also said that time and area closures will also be adopted later, to reduce the interception of steelhead and to maximize the catch of spring chinook.

Bill Bakke
Debate Continues over Steelhead Bycatch in Lower River Fishery
NW Fishletter, September 13, 2002

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