You may have heard that some of the backers of Oregon’s Measure 81, which would ban the use of gill nets in commercial, non-tribal fishing on the Columbia River, have abandoned their Yes on 81 campaign.
The organizers of the campaign have opted instead to support Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plan to move the non-tribal commercial gill netters off the Columbia River and into side channel areas where they have fewer impacts on wild fish.
A driving force behind both the measure and the governor’s plan is to free up more Columbia River salmon for sportfishing, though they also aim to shift all fishing to more selective methods that can target hatchery fish while letting protected wild salmon and steelhead swim free.
I’m working on a radio feature about the status of Measure 81, which will still appear on the November ballot even though its supporters are no longer promoting it. While that is in progress, I figured I’d do a quick update here on the world of gill nets on the Columbia.
The creators of Measure 81 are still working on a campaign called Stop Gillnets Now that takes aim at gill nets for being non-selective – that is, they catch both hatchery and wild fish and cannot discriminate between the two.
They’re also actively promoting the governor’s plan, according to campaign organizer Jeremy Wright, because it promises to quickly accomplish what the sportfishing industry has been trying to do for 20 years.
“The ballot measure was a choice of last resort,” said Wright. “Compared with Ballot Measure 81, which would eliminate gill net fishing practices altogether, this is a good compromise.”
Wright was excited to see that both the candidates for governor in Washington have come out in support of Kitzhaber’s plan.
Support from Washington state means that unlike the proposal in Measure 81, which would only technically ban gill nets in Oregon, the governor’s plan could clear both sides of the Columbia.
Meanwhile, gill netters and their supporters with the No on Measure 81 campaign are still furiously working to make sure Measure 81 doesn’t pass. They’ve spent $700,000 on television ads and mailers.
“It’s still on the ballot, so we still have to fight it,” said Jim Wells, president of the gill netting group Salmon For All. “It’s pretty easy for them to walk away and say they’re supporting the governors’ plan … but there are still a lot of uneducated people out there.”
And now, the gill netters are also fighting the governor’s plan, which they worry won’t deliver on promises to expand the off-channel fisheries to make up for the fish they won’t be allowed to catch on the mainstem.
“They’re promising funding that they can’t raise,” said Wells. “They’re promising areas that don’t exist.”
To understand the governor’s plan, you first need to understand the way fisheries are managed on the Columbia River.
Sport and commercial fishers target hatchery fish, that are produced specifically for the purpose of being caught. But in the process, both fisheries end up killing some of the wild fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
They’re only allowed to kill so many protected fish. The limit they’re given is called the “impacts” for short. There aren’t a lot of impacts to go around, and they’re split between the non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries. That split determines how many hatchery fish sport and commercial fishers can catch every year.
The problem with that arrangement is the more impacts you allocate to sportfishing, the fewer impacts you can offer commercial fishing – and vice versa. More impacts equals more catchable fish. And, of course, both sides want more catchable fish.
Being able to catch hatchery fish while impacting fewer wild fish is the goal for both sides. That’s where the rub comes in for gill nets. A sportfisher can release a wild fish to give it a chance to swim upstream to its spawning grounds. It’s harder for gill netters to do that because gill nets stay underwater for a long period of time and trap both wild and hatchery fish.
Enter Gov. Kitzhaber’s new plan. The way Kitzhaber sees it, according to his Natural Resource Policy Advisor Brett Brownscombe, the sportfishers get more economic value than the gill netters out of each wild fish “impact” in the Columbia River channel.
In off-channel areas, where there are fewer wild fish, the gill netters get more hatchery fish for every wild fish they impact.
Hence, Kitzhaber’s plan is to give recreational fishing free reign in the river channel and give gill netters priority in off-channel areas.
“The idea is to stretch the impacts that are allowed in ways that maximize the economic benefit for the sport and commercial fleets,” said Brownscombe. “The idea is to make everybody better off, even though in the interim there will be change.”
Brownscombe said the plan is targeting economic benefits more than environmental benefits because in the end the total number of wild fish impacts – the number of wild fish killed by non-tribal fisheries – will likely be the same.
As Wells, an Astoria gill netter put it: “You just transfer it over, and they’re just going to harvest it instead of us.”
The governor’s plan does have conservation in mind, said Brownscombe. In order to allow more wild fish to swim upstream to their spawning grounds, he said: “The first step needs to be: ‘Let’s be as selective as we can; That what is being taken and harvested are primarily hatchery fish.”
The governor’s plan also looks to develop alternative methods of commercial fishing in the river channel that would be more selective (see my story about how that would work here.) and that could be used once the recreational fishery had caught its limit.
Oregon wants to find a way to keep excess hatchery fish from straying and spawning in areas that should be habitat for wild fish.
Commercial fisheries can help remove lots of hatchery fish, but they need to avoid killing wild fish in the process. Raising hatchery fish in off-channel areas without wild fish around could be the answer to both problems.
That’s what’s currently happening at four off-channel areas in the lower Columbia right now. Hatcheries produce the fish, and then managers move them to net pens in Youngs Bay, near Tongue Point, in Blind Slough and near Washington’s Deep River. When the fish return to spawn, they return to the net pens instead of the hatcheries.
But here’s the thing about off-channel areas: They’re fairly small, few and far between, and limited as to how many fish they can raise.
The governor’s plan is to expand them and add more hatchery fish to the rearing pens.
But Clatsop County, which helps run the four existing off-channel fishing areas, has opposed that plan.
In a letter sent in August to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, Clatsop county commissioners reported that roughly half of the spring Chinook and coho and a quarter of the fall Chinook caught by gill netters come from these select areas. That means gill netters stand to lose more than half their catch if they are banned from fishing in the river channel.
The existing areas can’t make up the difference, the commissioners wrote. They’re already close to capacity in how much fish they can produce and how many boats can fish there, they said. And the studies that initially selected the four areas in use today looked at other possible sites but didn’t find any that worked.
There’s also a group of people in Astoria who are working to restore wild fish in Youngs Bay, and they don’t want the gill net fishery in the bay. Astorians Curtis Roegner, Carla Cole, Jesse Jones and Matt Van Ess sent a letter to the governor entitled “In defense of Youngs Bay” and argued for restoring wild runs instead of expanding fisheries that target hatchery fish.
Gill netters say they don’t trust the governor’s plan and the Fish and Wildlife Commission to find the money and space to expand the off-channel fishing areas.
But Brownscombe said that’s essential to the plan.
“Part of the deal is if we’re going to get increased priority for sportfishing in the mainstem, we’ve got to make sure we have enhanced off-channel areas for the commercial fleet,” he said.
Wright said the gill netters won’t be “made whole” by the governor’s plan, but they won’t be completely wiped out either. That, he said, is part of the compromise.