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Washington Follows Oregon's Lead,
Kicks Gillnets Out Of Mainstem Columbia

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, January 17, 2013

A Fall Chinook succumbs to a gill net. Washington's F&W commission unanimously voted Jan, 12 to restructure the commercial gillnet fishery in the Columbia River, making it illegal to use gillnets in the mainstem. Oregon F&W commissioners approved the new plan last month for their own fishermen. There are about 250 active Washington-based licenses, but only about 200 gillnetters from both states currently fish those waters.

The netters will transition to more fishing in off-channel, so-called "select" areas where Chinook and coho are raised in netpens for harvest. Funded primarily by BPA, the netpen fishery project was originally sold as a way to reduce harvest impacts on ESA-listed salmon.

The harvest reform effort in the lower Columbia was sold the same way, though it does nothing to actually reduce the harvest of ESA-listed salmonids. More of the allocation for ESA-listed fish will just go to the sportfishing sector, with language in the reform package that would give commercial gillnetters the option of boosting future catches by using more selective fishing methods like purse seining, where they could release unmarked wild fish relatively unharmed.

"Their (commission) vote was a unanimous commitment to a future that provides better conservation of wild stocks, less bycatch of non-targeted species, and vastly improved economics from our hatchery stocks," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. The commission also voted to make sporties use barbless hooks in the future, to reduce adverse impacts from releasing wild fish.

But the netters have argued that such a rosy future does not pencil out as the official fiscal analysis has claimed. Some commercials say it would cost them up to $70,000 to develop the new gear, which would allow them to fish in the mainstem, but target more lower river hatchery tules, a relatively low-value salmon by the time it enters the river, since it is close to spawning.

Even WDFW director Phil Anderson was clear about one thing. In a statement that accompanied the vote, he said the anticipated move of gillnets to off-channel areas depended on the success of developing and using alternative selective gear. "A key goal of this policy is to maintain or increase the economic viability of both recreational and commercial fisheries," Anderson said. "The timetable established in the policy depends on achieving that goal."

The plan calls for Washington and Oregon to boost netpen-raised fish numbers over the next several years, but BPA has announced it will stop contributing after 2016. It will be up to the state legislatures to boost the budgets, and possibly help finance the fishermen to get into more select fisheries.

"Impacts on ESA-listed salmon are tightly regulated in both fisheries," said Anderson. "But the successful development of selective commercial gear would allow the harvest of more hatchery salmon, reducing interactions between hatchery fish and wild salmon in natural spawning areas."

The commissions in both states have not answered questions of future costs or possible effects on ESA-listed Chinook in the lower Columbia from the new regime. In FY 2013, BPA is expected to contribute $1.9 million to the netpen project, ODFW $901,000, WDFW $569,000, Clatsop Economic Development Council $480,000, with in-kind funding from the State of Oregon, NOAA Fisheries (via Mitchell Act), and a voluntary assessment paid by the commercial fishing industry that added up to more than $2.5 million from 2009-2011. Since 2001, the total investment has reached about $20 million.

A 2006 review by the region's independent science panel was also concerned about the possibility of increased straying by hatchery fish on spawning grounds if the netpen project boosted juvenile releases. Recent federal policy has called for reducing hatchery releases in the lower river to reduce adverse impacts on ESA-listed lower Columbia tules.

Meanwhile, lower Columbia gillnetters announced the creation of a legal defense fund, to fight implementation of the plan in Oregon. They said the Kitzhaber plan voted into effect last December will keep them from being able to supply the public with high value spring and summer Chinook. "Fish that spawn far upriver build up high quantities of Omega 3 fatty acids in their flesh to sustain them on their long journey to the spawning grounds, which affects the moisture, quality, and taste of the fish, said the latest statement from Salmon For All. "The Select Areas, on the other hand, are all near the mouth of the Columbia. Select Area spring Chinook, for instance, is quite good. But no one would ever mistake it for the melt-in-your-mouth experience of Columbia River spring Chinook from the mainstem." -Bill Rudolph

Bill Rudolph
Washington Follows Oregon's Lead, Kicks Gillnets Out of Mainstem Columbia
NW Fishletter, January 17, 2013

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