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Groups Threaten to Sue for more Wild Steelhead Protection in Lower Columbia

by Bill Bakke
NW Fishletter, January 31, 2003

Several fish conservation groups from Oregon have issued a 60-day letter notifying the states and NOAA Fisheries they will take legal action unless changes are made in the lower Columbia gillnet fishery to better protect ESA-listed wild steelhead. The groups are worried that this year's season will be a repeat of last year when gillnetters exceeded the incidental take permit on wild steelhead, the limit established under the ESA that protects them.

"We have talked about it for three years and it is time to take action," said Jason Miner, conservation director for Oregon Trout, whose group announced the potential lawsuit, along with Washington Trout, and the Native Fish Society. "We have invested time and money into habitat repair and protection and it is unacceptable to have a small commercial fishery take so many steelhead. Legal action is an obvious step we have to take to protect these fish."

According to documents presented to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission last December, problems were evident in the tangle net fishery designed to release wild chinook while allowing for harvest of hatchery stocks that display a clipped fin. In last year's winter fishery, the agency allowed commercial fishermen to use 5.5-inch mesh gill net, but it turned out to be too large. "...The wrong mesh size for steelhead contributed to the high numbers of steelhead handled in the commercial fishery," said harvest managers, who also noted the steelhead run was unusually large, with 21,700 steelhead being handled, including 13,000 unmarked steelhead (wild).

Steelhead have been protected from commercial harvest by Oregon and Washington since the mid-1970s in the lower Columbia as well as being protected under federal law, but the incidental take permit issued by NOAA Fisheries allows harvesters to kill up to 2 percent of the threatened steelhead in the fishery that targets spring chinook.

According to ODFW biologists, "the immediate mortality rate for steelhead caught was 2 percent...and the long-term mortality rate is estimated to be between 20% to 50%. In any case, impacts to ESA-listed winter steelhead are likely above the preseason guideline of 2 percent for mainstem fisheries."

NOAA Fisheries biologist Peter Dygert says the incidental take permit is not a guideline. "It is a cap, a limit they are supposed to manage to," he said. "We are trying to move to a live capture-type fishery, and the fish managers are trying to make it work. We want a viable fishery that stays within the impact limits that are low enough to recover the fish. We set the criteria that will protect the fish and the managers figure out how to stay within the limits."

Steve Sanders, ODFW legal council, said the state is still looking at fishing methods that limit harm to wild fish. "As part of the biological opinion and U.S. v Oregon, we are continuing to explore options for selective fisheries and we believe the tangle net offers some promise."

But conservation groups are not so sure. Their notice of intent to sue includes conditions for increasing protection for steelhead. They have proposed "the lower Columbia River fishery be directly and adequately monitored and terminated or suspended if it appears likely that the number of…steelhead impacted by the fishery will exceed permitted levels."

The groups want the gillnet mesh size reduced to 3.5 inches in the 2003 fishery (it is proposed to be 4.25 inches), the requirement of a daylight fishery, and timed to avoid steelhead interception. They also want harvest managers to open and close more often to allow more steelhead escapement and confine gillnetters to below the town of St. Helens. They are also asking for the fishery to be suspended when the steelhead encounter rate exceeds 5 percent of the catch.

Dygert said harvest managers and NOAA Fisheries are expecting to establish a steelhead impact threshold based on predicted run size, encounter rates and an impact limit of 2 percent. He admitted it was a "difficult management problem." Once the threshold was reached, he expected managers to close the fishery down, but he didn't oppose reopening it as long as the harvest stayed within the incidental take limit.

Oregon Trout's Jason Miner does not disagree with Dygert, but he isn't so sure the fishery can be carried out and still protect steelhead. "The fishery will kill a lot of fish this year if we do not take action to prevent it," he said. "We are seeking greater monitoring. They need to determine how many fish they are taking each day and not exceed the limit of 2 percent. It is logical to shut down the fishery as they approach the limit," Miner said.

The states are proposing a fishery that will use new technology, time and area closures, encourage the use of "excluder" nets that would intercept fewer steelhead, and increase monitoring. This effort is expected to cost $600,000 and is being funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.

Bill Bakke
Groups Threaten to Sue for more Wild Steelhead Protection in Lower Columbia
NW Fishletter, January 31, 2003

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