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Gillnet Restrictions Bite Into Economy

The impact of the threat to gillnetting on the Columbia River is here.

Businesses are hurting.

“We can’t survive if we don’t have the gillnetters,” said Bob Zakrzewski, co-owner of Columbia Pacific Marine Works in Astoria, which does boat and motor repairs for gillnet fishermen.

Jon Englund of Englund Marine and Industrial Supply said his business has tracked purchases of gillnet fishing gear and supplies between Nov. 1 and the end of April. “We know what we’re down in that area and it’s right around $250,000,” he said.

The uncertainty

Although the sport fishing-backed Measure 81 failed on the November ballot, Gov. John Kitzhaber asked Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions to introduce new rules on the use of fishing gear and fish allocations. These are being challenged in court.

“This is a very misguided policy decision that is not going to achieve the proposed objectives,” said Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries and a petitioner in the Oregon lawsuit. “You’ll have more discontent between user groups and certainly the economics don’t play out.”

While the court reviews matters, a bill has been introduced in the Oregon Senate to make seine nets legal in Oregon’s lower Columbia River waters. The gear type has been outlawed in the state since 1948. Senate Bill 830 would also direct Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to implement a transition program with proposed rule changes and appropriate funding for enhancement areas. The bill has stalled in the Joint Ways and Means Committee since April.

Approximately 500 commercial gillnet permit holders and their families on both sides of the river wait to see what the future holds.

“They’re not sure what to do at this point,” said Fick, about gillnet fishermen deciding whether to purchase gear or to do boat repairs. “They’re surprised and frustrated.”

Background to controversy

Gov. Kitzhaber’s changes would phase out gillnet use on the main stem of the river and enhance off-channel hatchery sites, as well as test alternative gear for future use. The policies call for reallocating salmon runs during a transition period, eventually allowing 80 percent to go to recreational fishermen and 20 percent to go to commercial gillnet fishermen.

Conservation groups and recr eational fishermen argued that gillnets were responsible for catching endangered fish species and hurting the fishery.

Commercial gillnet fishermen disagreed and explained during public testimony why the gear type is a selective method. They opposed adopting gear such as seine nets and being forced to fish off-channel sites.

In December, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted new regulations that would have begun a four-year transition period this year. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission followed suit.

Lawsuits challenging the policy changes were filed by commercial gillnet fishermen and stakeholders in both states. The Oregon Court of Appeals has put a stay on enforcement as it reviews the adopted policies.

More uncertainty

Meanwhile, the threat to gillnetting on the river has affected local businesses.

Zakrzewski and Lasse Vedenoja have co-owned Columbia Pacific Marine Works since 1997. When they first started out, Zakrzewski said their business was 75 percent from sports fishermen and 25 percent from gillnet fishermen. Now, it’s the other way around.

“We’ve had the slowest year so far that we’ve ever had,” he said. The downturn has caused them to make a tough decision: to put the business up for sale.

“If I was a gillnetter I wouldn’t be putting a bunch of money in my boat if I don’t know if I can fish or not,” said Vedenoja, who moved from Finland in 1971.

When they bought the business, Vedenoja said the previous owners had focused on engine maintenance for certain brands. Now the two business owners work on anything they can. They were able to add welding and fabrication services to their business because of Zakrzewski’s 30 years of experience as a steel fabricator.

“We’ve added over the years new business to try and survive,” Vedenoja said. “We were trying to convert with the times and keep going.”

The four-person operation does everything from engine replacements to oil changes and general maintenance. Over the wintertime, the co-owners said they often work on replacing two to four engine drives for gillnet boats. This last winter they didn’t replace any. Vedenoja said a lot of gillnet boat engines can be 18 to 20 years old, but the only option for them is to put a Band-Aid on it right now.

“They just say, ‘Well, rather than replace it, we’ll get another season out of it and do whatever we have to do,” he said. “They don’t have the money, or some of them do, but they’re not willing to spend it.”

“Why spend $30,000 on your boat if you’re not going to be able to hardly use it?” said Zakrzewski.

Some business comes from sports fishermen who have breakdowns and need emergency repairs and also from devoted customers around the state. “We have a really good reputation,” said Zakrzewski, but that portion of revenue is still only a quarter of the operation.

“I thought the idea of a depressed economy was to put more people to work instead of less,” said Zakrzewski, who along with Vedenoja, met with a realty agent Tuesday.

Gillnet gear sales in limbo

Englund Marine and Industrial Supply stocks netting for gillnet fishermen to purchase. Those sales have dropped in recent months. Jon Englund said the company came up with the $250,000 projected loss in gear and supply sales after talking with staff.

Kurt Englund, Jon’s son, runs the day-to-day operations at the store in Astoria. “If there’s no predictable future, no one is going to put any money in it,” he said about purchasing netting and supplies. “We’re definitely seeing the effect of that.”

Jon Englund said they have a lot of netting that’s already been sold but not paid for, and they’ve called customers to come pick it up, but are still waiting.

The nets have different mesh sizes, depths and twine strength, making it hard to sell one fisherman’s net to another.

“Every one of those orders are made specially and different,” he said.

If gillnets were eventually taken off the Columbia River, specific nets made for the river would become obsolete, leaving only nets for Youngs Bay and Bristol Bay in Alaska.

Much of the equipment used in commercial fishing has to be ordered and imported by the store based on speculation. Gillnet fishermen may decide they need a specific net size for an upcoming season and put an order in ahead of time. Kurt Englund estimates that around 65 percent of netting is ordered because of fishermen speculation and the rest is done by the store. The company keeps more common specifications in stock so someone can come in and pull it off the shelf.

But most is special and custom made for each fisherman’s specifications. “If that guy doesn’t show up and he’s the only guy that likes it that way, then we’re stuck with it,” he said.

Kurt Englund said it’s really easy to see the effect uncertainty has had on purchasing netting, but gillnet fishermen also purchase rain gear, boots and other marine supplies.

“It’s not just what they bought in netting, it is all the things that keep their boat operating,” he said.

On Friday, Englund Marine and Industrial Supply will conductan inventory count of gillnet gear that could be phased out on the Columbia River if policy changes are upheld.

“I don’t know what that figure will be, but it will be substantial,” Jon Englund said about potential losses. “The question is: now what do we do with it?”

The potential changes are huge and will cost jobs, said Englund, “but we don’t know where, when or how much at this point. It’s really difficult.”

Reallocating salmon to recreational fishermen won’t increase sales from that user group, he said. “The only return is going to be in the metro area. It isn’t going to affect us.”

Englund said his company needs the commercial and recreational fishermen to make the business work.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.