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Tangle Net Fishery Angers, Concerns Sport Anglers

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 26, 2002

A surprisingly high "bycatch" of steelhead this past spring during Columbia River mainstem commercial fisheries targeting spring chinook salmon has sport anglers concerned, and angered.

The Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife invited sport fishers, guides, sport fishing industry officials and fish conservation groups to comment on this year's "tangle net" demonstration and test fisheries. The assembled group, which included no commercial fishing interests, was also asked how the commercial fisheries could be changed or improved for 2003.

The state fish management agencies' demonstration fishery -- which involved nearly 200 commercial boats at its peak -- was intended to target, first of all, surplus Willamette spring chinook hatchery fish, and secondly, marked upriver spring chinook . The upriver run this year was more than 394,900 adult fish -- the second largest run since counts began in 1938.

Commercial fishers were required to use shorter nets or "drifts" and nets of smaller mesh size than have traditionally been used to catch the large chinook. The larger mesh allowed the chinook to slip part way through -- snaring them around the gills and suffocating them. The smaller mesh was intended entangle the chinook rather than allow them to push their heads through, and allow the fishers to release unmarked, potentially wild fish.

Upper Columbia, Snake River and Willamette spring chinook stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The more chinook-friendly, selective fisheries were expected to allow commercial fishers to catch and keep more of the abundant hatchery spring chinook while minimizing impacts on listed fish. The commercial fleet was also required to check their nets more often and to have on board oxygenated "recovery boxes" with circulating water to help revive lethargic fish before their release back into the water.

And despite the fact that catch rates seem to drop with the smaller mesh sizes, the fleet still fared well. Various mesh size nets were evaluated during a test fishery that followed the late February to late March demonstration full-fleet fishery.

The fleet "handled" a total of 29,400 spring chinook and released 17,700 unmarked fish back into the river. But the commercial boats also caught an unexpectedly high number of steelhead -- a species that also has ESA listed components and is designated exclusively as a sport fish. The commercial fishers had to release all 22,100 steelhead caught in their nets.

Vexing the sport fishing interest is the potential physical harm, and mortality, caused to the steelhead by the nets. They believe that the 5 1/2-inch mesh nets used predominantly in the fishery effectively serve as "gill nets" for the steelhead -- which are much smaller than the spring chinook.

A still incomplete evaluation of steelhead mortality from the commercial fishery indicates that "our impacts to the wild fish will be greater than our 2 percent planned preseason," said Cindy LeFleur of the WDFW. The states are operating sport and commercial under an agreement reached with lower Columbia River treaty tribes that allocates the harvest, and allowed impacts on ESA listed fish. One of the sport fishers concerns is that steelhead impacts in the commercial fishery would violate the agreed-upon limits, thus forcing a closure of all non-tribal fisheries. That could have happened this past spring had state officials had the ability to gauge mortality in-season.

"It's very important that steelhead are not caught, and killed," in the demonstration fishery, Phil Leshowitz, Washington state chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

ODFW salmon fisheries manager Steve King said that the 5 1/2-inch nets used in February and March effectively "did function as a gill net for steelhead," though the nets did not cause the high rates of immediate mortality associated with traditional gill net fisheries. Data collected by the two state agencies shows immediate morality rates of 0.7 percent for chinook and 2 percent for steelhead in the fishery. Estimates of short and long-term mortality of the released fish are not yet available.

Liz Hamilton told agency officials that "hanging 5 1/2-inch coho nets and calling it a tangle net" has caused confusion. The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director said the states need to more strictly define what they mean by tangle net.

She later urged the states, in 2003, to limit the tangle net fishery to mesh sizes of 4 1/2 inches, at the greatest. She and others attending the meeting said that their preference would be to outlaw the use of nets and concentrate any selective commercial fishing effort on more benign methods, such as fish wheels.

"This full fleet, 5 1/2-inch net stuff just didn't work. It's an embarrassment to everyone," Hamilton said.

"I'm not against commercial fishing. I'm against killing the last wild fish," said Gary Loomis, president of Fish First. He said it is vital that commercial fishing practices be changed to reduce that bycatch.

"It we don't save the wild fish, where are we going to go to get the eggs the next time the hatcheries have a problem," Loomis added.

WDFW's statewide salmon manager, Tim Flint, acknowledged that the commercial fisheries' steelhead encounter and mortality rates are "unacceptable. He said the 5 1/2-inch mesh nets would not likely be allowed in 2003 in what would be the second planned trial for both the full fleet demonstration fishery and test fishery.

Oregon Trout's Jim Myron told the state officials that they should do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the economic benefit produced by the spring chinook tangle net fishery was worth it. The associated research was funded in 2002 by the Bonneville Power Administration at $659,000. The effort also requires considerable staff time both for the fish agencies and law enforcement agencies, he said.

He said the states should consider the "option of not doing it at all."

State officials said they intend to continue discussions with both sport and commercial fishing interests on how to shape a 2003 demonstration fishery. Among the goals are to:

A decision on any net mesh size limitation needs to be made by early fall, when fishers must order netting.

King said that the vast majority of the commercial fishers are willing to make adjustments, including the use of smaller mesh nets that reduce catch efficiency.

The states are pursuing a three-year grant from BPA, through the Northwest Power Planning Council, to fund the demonstration and test fisheries and related research.

Related Links:

Barry Espenson
Tangle Net Fishery Angers, Concerns Sport Anglers
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 26, 2002

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