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Officials, Fishing Interests Mull Gill, Tangle Net Strategies

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 17, 2003

Oregon and Washington fisheries officials convened fishing interests Tuesday to gather input on a strategy to use wide-mesh gill nets early -- and live capture tangle nets later -- in the spring chinook commercial fishing season as a means of lessening the encounter rate on steelhead.

Sport and commercial fishers and representatives of related industries and fish conservation groups crowded a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife conference room to hear, particularly, how the commercial fishery might be shaped. Decision on the type of gear to be used and fishery timing will be made during a Feb. 6 meeting of the Columbia River Compact.

Fishery officials put on a balancing act, trying to maximize fishing opportunities without unduly harming stocks listed under the Endangered Species. An agreement between the states prioritizes commercial fishing early (late February and March) in the spring chinook runs and sport fishing late (April into May).

Sport fishers are taking a keen interest this year because of the heavy toll that was exacted on a sport fish -- steelhead -- last spring by commercial nets. And all on hand wanted to express their views on how the seasons can be manipulated to avoid conflicts between the sport and commercial fishers.

Sport fishers want a clear line drawn -- that commercial fishing be ended by April 1 so as not to disrupt "family fishing" activity that blossoms with the spring weather and peaking upriver run. Commercial say they should be allowed additional fishing time after April 1 if they have not caught their share of the spring chinook runs.

The two state agencies rolled out a strategy they feel will help reduce impacts to steelhead, listed and unlisted, while still allowing commercial fishermen a share of what is expected to be a relatively abundant spring chinook return. Non-tribal fishers plying mainstem waters between Bonneville Dam and the river's mouth also must stay within defined limits on impacts to upriver spring chinook (2 percent combined for sport and commercial) and Willamette River spring chinook (15 percent total). Both Snake River and Upper Columbia River wild spring chinook stock are listed, as are the wild Willamette fish. Steelhead are listed as well, and non-Indian fishers are allowed a 2 percent impact.

The commercial fleet last year for the first time was required to employ live capture tangle nets -- so called because their smaller mesh size tend to tangle the chinook around the head but not the gills.

That gives the fish a better chance of living through the experience so that unmarked salmon can be released. The larger mesh gill nets used traditionally tend to clamp the gills and suffocate the fish. A growing number of hatchery produced chinook are marked with a fin clip before their release while naturally produced fish are unmarked.

But while the tangle nets, primarily 5 -inch mesh, worked reasonably well last year the "handle" of steelhead in the commercial fishery exceeded expectations. Commercial fisheries occurring between Feb. 25 and March 27 landed and kept 14,800 chinook and released another 15,000 unmarked salmon. Unfortunately they also caught 20,900 steelhead, including 12,400 unmarked fish. That raised the ire of sport fishers and conservationists who feared the harm done to steelhead that were caught by commercial fishers and released.

The 5 -inch mesh that served as a tangle net for the chinook actually captured many of the smaller-bodied steelhead by the gills. State, federal and tribal fishery officials have not yet completed their analysis related to steelhead impacts from the 2002 commercial fishery, but it was grave.

"We do know that the impacts did exceed 2 percent," according to ODFW's Patrick Frazier.

A preseason forecast pegs the overall 2003 spring chinook return at 271,000 adult fish to the mouth of the Columbia as compared to 432,300 last year. The upriver component -- those headed above Bonneville Dam is forecast to be 145,400 adults, about half of last year's return of 295,100 still an above average run for recent history. Last year's total was the second highest run on record since 1938. The record was set in 2001 with a return of 416,500 upriver spring chinook. The upriver adult return was 178,000 in 2000, but counts during the 1990s ranged from a high of 114,000 to a low of only 10,200.

The Willamette River spring chinook forecast is for a return of 109,800 adults, down a bit from last year's 121,700-fish count but about average for recent history. The Willamette run is expected to be dominated -- 81 percent -- by age 5 fish. It is estimated that 80 percent of the Willamette fish will be marked with clip that identifies them as of hatchery origin.

The upriver run -- less than 50 percent marked -- will be made up of an estimated 76 percent age 4 fish.

The main strategy being considered, in essence, offers up the Willamette fish as the primary target for the gill netters and the upriver fish as the main target for sport fishers. The Willamette run normally peaks much earlier than the upriver run and the older fish generally return earlier than the younger fish.

The proposal would allow the use of 8-inch mesh early in the season when the vast majority of the chinook in the river are the larger, older Willamette fish. The large mesh essentially would allow passing winter steelhead to swim right through.

Unmarked chinook would still have to be released, but their mortality would likely be higher with the gill nets than they would be with the tangle nets -- now limited to 4 -inch mesh to eliminate the gill-net effect of the 5 -inch nets used last year.

Fishery managers proposed to -- between now and Feb. 6 -- define "triggers" that would prompt the shift from the 8-inch nets to the tangle nets. Among those potential triggers are the mark rate. When the mark rate falls it means the percentage of upriver chinook in the river has grown, since a smaller percentage of them are marked.

Tim Flint, the WDFW's statewide salmon manager, said that reaching particular thresholds -- for mark rate or chinook mortality -- would force the shift from large to small mesh nets.

Jim Tuggle of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited called the plan creative work, though he and others such as Frank Urabeck insist that the agencies provide a definition of the triggers that would force the commercial fleet to shift gear.

"The devil is in the details," said Urabeck, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association. He said his and other sport fishing organizations before judging the proposal must know how the agencies will calculate mortality for non-target species -- the steelhead and unmarked, potentially wild chinook. He asked that the information be developed before the Feb. 6 meeting so the groups could develop comments for the Compact.

The proposed strategy would allow designated commercial fishing periods from late February through March with reduced fishing in mid- to late March.

"A large steelhead handle occurred during that time frame" last year, Frazier said. That fishing time could be made up with the provision of a few days in early April, he said.

If the actual spring chinook return matches the predictions, commercial fishers would be allowed to harvest up to 17,500 Willamette River fish and nearly 8,600 upriver fish. Sport fishers could catch up to 41,000 Willamette River fish and 16,134 upriver fish.

The sport season is expected to occur from Jan. 1 through May 15 from the river mouth upstream to the Oregon/Washington border above McNary except from Bonneville Dam to the Tower Island power lines.

Barry Espenson
Officials, Fishing Interests Mull Gill, Tangle Net Strategies
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 17, 2003

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