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Gillnetters Hit the River;
Few Fish But Good Prices

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 5, 2004

Clearer than normal river conditions meant poor fishing for the lower Columbia River gill net fleet Tuesday in what was their first full 2004 pursuit of returning hatchery-bred spring chinook salmon.

But the few fish caught during the 16-hour fishery were worth the effort. According to information put together by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and game, gill-netters delivered 205 chinook and 21 sturgeon to buyers following the fishery that began at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. The mainstem fishery was conducted from the Columbia River mouth upstream to Kelley Point, which is near the mouth of the Willamette River at Portland.

The catch put $22,600 into the hands of the commercial fishers, according to Gary Soderstrom, president of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. The chinook averaged18.9 pounds, and the first commercial chinook catch of the season was fetching $5.50 per pound from buyers. The sturgeon price was $2.25 per pounds.

The catch was quite low because the returning spring chinook run has only just begun to enter the river. Gill-netters were also hampered by clear Columbia River water that they say limits their nets' effectiveness during the daylight hours particularly. The fishers were required Tuesday to use 9-inch mesh nets, as opposed preferred 8-inch, as a means to reduce the encounter rate with winter steelhead. It is theorized that the larger the mesh, the easier it is for the smaller steelhead to swim through without getting ensnared or gilled. The larger mesh is less effective, however, at catching the targeted chinook and can more easily be detected and avoided by the fish.

The fish total came from 69 "deliveries" or boats. But much of the fleet was unsuccessful.

"There are at least another 50 that didn't make a delivery because they didn't catch any fish," the CRFPU's Jack Marinkovich said. "I can't remember ever going out on March 2 when the fishing was so poor."

Fishers testifying at a Wednesday meeting of the Columbia River Compact asked for more fishing time, with the emphasis on providing more night time hours while the stock composition in the river is still conducive to using bigger mesh nets.

Fishing is limited because of Endangered Species Act listings for chinook and steelhead. Because of Snake River, Upper Columbia and Mid-Columbia spring chinook listings, non-tribal fishers are permitted to have only a 2 percent impact on an upriver run that also includes unlisted, hatchery produced chinook.

The commercial share of that impact is .8 percent. ODFW and WDFW staff estimate that about 15 percent of Tuesday's catch was from upriver -- an impact of 0.006 or less than one percent of the gill-netters allowable impact.

The large mesh is intended to allow gill-netters to harvest as many of the returning Willamette River and other lower river stocks as possible while holding down steelhead impacts, which are also 2 percent for non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries. The Willamette stock, which usually returns to the river earlier than upriver spring chinook, is listed but the impact limit is 15 percent and has yet to be approached.

Monitoring of Tuesday's catch was limited by a dense fog that made it difficult for observers to find the commercial boats. They did ride along on 77 drifts, however, witnessing the catch of 12 chinook and four steelhead. That catch was extrapolated in setting a steelhead impact for the full fleet fishery at 0.068 percent -- 3 percent of the allowable 2004 non-Indian allowable impacts.

"I'd like to get as much fishing as we can on the front end of this run," fisherman Vern Forsberg told the Compact, which sets Columbia mainstem commercial fisheries. The panel includes Bill Tweit and Steve Williams, respectively the designees of the WDFW and ODFW directors.

The Compact has been proceeding at a measured pace this year after unusual run timing, and stock composition, in 2003 resulted in the commercial fisheries being limited to only three days and a saleable catch of only 3,046 chinook. The catch during the first two 16-hour periods last year was 80 percent upriver fish and resulted in the gill-netters incurring nearly half of their impacts and being able to sell only 519 fish. Typically, mid-February stock composition is 90 to 95 percent lower river fish.

So this year the Compact called for test fisheries utilizing a handful of boats before setting full-fleet fisheries. Their catch this past Sunday affirmed that the stock composition was dominated by lower river fish, thus allowing the launching of the Tuesday fishery. That stock composition was reaffirmed by the full fleet's catch this week, thus allowing the Compact to set a fishery that begin at 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon and ran until 7 a.m. Friday morning. The fishery responds to the gill-netters request for more "dark time" fishing when the nets are less visible in the clear water. But it did not expand the fishing period as some fishers had requested.

"Those 350,000 urpriver fish should be showing up shortly," Commercial fisher Chris Heuker said of chance that that favorable stock composition will soon be swamped by what is expected to be the second biggest upriver spring chinook return on record (since 1938). The preseason forecast was for a return of 360,700 adult spring chinook destined for areas above Bonneville Dam. Such a return would rank behind only the 416,500-adult return in 2001 since counts began following completion of Bonneville Dam construction. In 2003, an estimated 209,200 adults returned.

The 2004 return is also expected to include 109,400 Willamette River spring chinook, 15,900 to the Cowlitz, 6,000 to the Kalama and 5,400 to the Lewis. The latter three rivers are in southwest Washington.

Commercial fisherman Jim Wells warned the Compact that something must be done about sea lions that have become more numerous in recent years and are extremely "voracious." The were largely the reason for the lack of success Tuesday near the Astoria, Ore., bridge, snatching salmon and even sturgeon from the nets.

The Thursday/Friday fishery required the use of gillnets that have mesh openings no smaller than 9 inches and no larger than 9.75 inches to lessen the chance that steelhead will be caught. Nets may not be in the water longer than 45 minutes before being brought in the boat for fish removal. All fish that are not adipose fin-clipped spring chinook must be released. Boats must have a recovery box on board to revive all lethargic or bleeding wild salmon or steelhead before being returned to the water.

Of the total run, 70-80 percent are marked by a missing adipose fin to designate them as "keepers." Biologists estimate a total mainstem harvest of about 50,000 hatchery-bred spring chinook, split between sport anglers and the commercial fishing industry.

Sport angling will continue during the commercial fishery.

Barry Espenson
Gillnetters Hit the River; Few Fish But Good Prices
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 5, 2004

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