As the sun sets on a Sunday night, gill netter Gary Johnson unfurls a 1200-foot long net from a drum on his gill net boat.
The buoys that keep the net afloat thump against the railing of the boat as they drop one by one into the Columbia River.
Weights pull the mesh down to the river bottom as Johnson stretches the net across most of the river channel near St. Helens.
He waits 45 minutes for fish to swim into the net. Then he reels it in. His first catch is a wild fish from a healthy run swimming back to the Hanford reach of the Columbia.
“There you go,” he says. “There it is. That’s an upriver bright.
That’s the target. Look how bright that is. That’s probably a 19 pound fish.”
Johnson’s net can’t tell the difference between a protected wild salmon and this upriver bright that he’s supposed to catch. It snags them both. And by the time the fish are pulled on board the boat, there’s a good chance the protected fish would die if it were released back into the river.
Critics of gill netting say that’s a problem.
“I think gill nets have been a controversial issue for years,” says Heath Heikkila, who represents a sportfishing group called the Coastal Conservation Association.
The CCA is one of the groups that got Measure 81 on the ballot. They say gill nets have too much impact on threatened and endangered fish.
“If there were no gill nets or tangle nets in the main stem, you would pass extra wild fish upriver,” Heikkila said.
Heikkila’s group has tried numerous times to get rid of gill nets on the Columbia, but to no avail.
“I think it was years of frustration that lead to an effort to go to the voters with Measure 81,” he said.
But gill netters say Measure 81 isn’t about protecting wild fish. They say it’s about getting more fish for sportfishers who share the same fishing grounds and have to split the total catch with commercial gill netters.
Johnson says with tight limits for all fishing on the Columbia, more fish for one fishery means less for the other.
“They want more,” he says. “It’s not that we’re asking for more. It’s that they need more and more is coming out of us. We’re taking the smaller share and trying to make the most of it, but as the sport fishery continues to grow in the river, that’s where the conflict arises.”
Gov. John Kitzhaber thinks he has a better way to settle the dispute than banning non-tribal gill nets altogether as Measure 81 would do.
His plan is to separate the two fisheries. It would stock off-channel bays and sloughs with more hatchery fish and move gill netters off the main stem river and into those areas. That way sportfishers can have longer seasons on the Columbia River channel while gill netters catch their fish in bays and sloughs.
“These two communities have been at each other for a long, long, long time,” says Brett Brownscombe, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resource policy advisor. Brownscombe’s job lately is explaining the governor’s plan for easing the conflict between sport and commercial fisheries on the Columbia.
I don’t think the governor is coming into this feeling like he can wipe the slate clean as if there were no history here,” he says, “but I think he does feel like this is an opportunity for him to do something on an issue that has been stuck.”
The sport fishing groups that initially backed Measure 81 have decided to support the governor’s plan instead.
But gill netters worry that the governor will only follow through on part of his plan: The part that removes them from the main channel.
They say it’s impossible for them to catch as many fish under the governor’s plan as they’re catching now in both the main stem river and the bays and sloughs.
Johnson says he wouldn’t even try.
“If you’ve fished all your life, it’s no way to fish,” he says. “For me, if there were a complete closure on the main stem, that would end my career.”
So, even while gill netters still fighting Ballot Measure 81, they’re also arguing against the governor’s plan to move them off the river.
Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions are working out the details of the governor’s plan for both states. The new policy needs to be approved by the end of the year.
But voters could upend that process by approving the ballot measure on Nov. 6, overriding the governor’s plan, and banning non-tribal gill nets from Oregon altogether.