The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 Friday to ban gillnets, dealing a major blow to the fleet’s long tradition of fishing the main stem of the Columbia River.
The fishery is regulated jointly by the states of Oregon and Washington so the next step is for Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to meet in Olympia, Wash., Saturday to review joint management objectives. The commission will be briefed on the finalized recommendations Saturday.
It will allow for a public comment period. The next step would be developing a draft policy.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission made its decision Friday after 88 people gave testimony.
The vote means fishing regulations in the lower Columbia River will change, because in addition to the ban on gillnets, allocations in the controversial rivalry between commercial and recreational fishermen will also change.
The new rules will apply to nontribal commercial fishers. Native American fishers will not be affected.
Bobby Levy, chairwoman of the commission, voted in favor of the management plan with three of her fellow commissioners, Bob Webber, Holly Akenson and Michael Finley. Commissioners Laura Anderson and Gregory Wolley voted against.
Allocation in the spotlight
The finalized plan came with some minor amendments that took into consideration allocation issues.
Spring chinook are allocated at 60 percent for sports fishermen and 40 percent for commercial fishermen. In 2013, this will now shift 5 percent higher for sports fishermen and 5 percent less for commercial. The plan originally called for a more rapid shift to 70 percent and 30 percent, which it will turn to in 2014, now.
The commission received a last-minute letter from Gov. John Kitzhaber. The governor proposed changes in the fishery this summer, midway through a controversial election campaign for Measure 81, a broad gillnet ban which failed in November.
The commission was briefed on the updated plan before the day of testimony and discussion kicked off.
“The reasonable objectives can be met, we believe,” said Ed Bowles, fish division director, to the commission. “This plan does provide overall conservation benefits.”
The decision has been four months in the making, after the governor asked that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife work with its Washington counterparts and reshape management on the lower Columbia River.
The plan calls for phasing out gillnet use on the main stem of the river and redirecting use of the net to select off-channel sites.
Starting next year, gillnets would become less prevalent in their use and the number of salmon smolts would be increased to ramp up production. Between 2013 to 2017, alternative gear such as seine nets would be tested and possibly implemented.
Seine nets are currently illegal in Oregon, an issue that is expected to be addressed by the Legislature next year.
Immediate allocation would shift to recreational fishermen on the main stem, as they fish seasonal salmon species.
Commercial gillnet fishermen opposed the plan, saying that it unfairly allocates more fish to recreational fishermen and would force them to adapt expensive equipment. They also do not feel the off-channel sites will see enough fish or have enough room for boats moved off the main stem to catch those fish.
‘Win-win,’ says governor
The letter from Kitzhaber was delivered to the commission by Brett Brownscombe, the governor’s natural resource policy adviser, before the morning public comment period started.
The letter offered a breakdown of the $5.2 million the governor recently announced he had set aside in his 2013-2015 biennium budget.
Kitzhaber has described this as an “economic win-win” for both recreational and commercial fishermen, although it was greeted with skepticism by fishers at the mouth of the Columbia.
According to the letter, read by Brownscombe, $2 million would come from general funds and $1.6 million would come from lottery-backed bonds, and $1.6 would come from an endorsement fee paid by Columbia River sports fishermen.
The letter also pointed out three suggested modifications to the results of earlier workgroup meetings on the controversial topic. Among them are phasing in barbless hooks for sports fishermen and adopting gradually protective zones around the hatchery sites like Youngs Bay.
The modifications were greeted with strong reactions.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said Jim Wells, president of Salmon for All.
Meeting with governor
The governor met with Wells, other gillnet fishermen and Clatsop County representatives on Thursday during a day in which fishers staged a protest at the state Capitol.
“The Columbia River belongs to everyone, and the fish in it are a shared public resource that belongs to everyone,” Clatsop County Commissioner Dirk Rohne told Thursday’s rally, echoing statements he made to the governor. “Everyone should have the same right to enjoy Columbia River salmon, and that is a service the gillnetters provide for all of us.”
The protective zone was seen by gillnetters Friday as a way to distance river guide boats from the off-channel catch.
Barbless hooks are relatively easier to remove from the mouth of a fish, which Wells said seems to make sense if conservation is the issue.
The governor wished to have an adaptive management approach, so that things could change as time went on, Brownscombe said.
Friday’s public comment period commenced before and after lunch, and went several hours with 88 people testifying.
In summary: Gillnet fishermen said the proposal was unfair while recreational fishers and conservationists applauded the plan.
Wallace Beck, of McMinnville, described himself as a sports fishermen and conservationist. “I just want to applaud and support the work you’ve done,” he said. “These fish belong to no one and at the same time they belong to all of us.”
He cited dangerous waves and northwest winds as a reason for not having protection zones around hatching sites. “This restriction would make it very difficult to fish the lower river,” said Beck.
But Irene Martin, a Salmon for All board member and wife of a commercial fishermen in the Columbia-Pacific region, said the fiscal and economic impact statement was not sufficient. “It’s not a slam dunk,” she said.
One of her other arguments regarded the use of alternative gear.. “The federal government will have something say about any gear that affects endangered species,” she said. “If this doesn’t work, how do you go back?
“Nobody talks about what happens if this doesn’t work.”
Testimony from river guides showed a level of apprehension, fearing that the plan was going to hurt chances to fish for sturgeon in the river.
Many of the questions raised by conservationists have been regarding gillnets and their perceived non-selective approach to fishing for salmon.
Gillnetters disagree with this assumption.
“This is a sustainable fishery that we currently have,” said Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria.
Dave Schamp. chairman of Coastal Conservation Association in Oregon, believed more needs to be done to protect salmon in the Columbia. He said the governor’s plan implements protective measures.
“By protecting the fish and doing the right things by the fish we all benefit,” he said. “Our goal is to eliminate the use of non-selective gear.
“It’s time for a change. I would ask that you implement his plan.”
Bruce Polley, another CCA member in Oregon, had a similar prospective. “I really commend the work you’ve done. Please pass this today.”
But Georgia Marincovich argued that the governor was only allocating commercial fish to recreational fishermen.
“We’ve been fishing for the people of Oregon for a 150 years,” said Marincovich , whose husband, Jack, is a lifelong commercial gillnet fishermen.
Some of the amendments to earlier suggested changes included gradually allocating spring Chinook salmon at 5 percent a year instead of the current more rapid transition.
Barbless hooks stayed in the plan, as well as an agreement to revisit protection zones around sites like Youngs Bay. The commission also pushed back the one catch limit of sturgeon to 2014, a major concern of river guides on the Columbia.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.