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Oregon and Washington's plans for regulating commercial fishing on the lower Columbia River appear to be drifting apart, like an unmoored boat bobbing away from a dock. Since 1915, the states have agreed on how to manage the salmon industry on more than...

Gillnets on Columbia River: The long-standing debate roars back

Oregon and Washington's plans for regulating commercial fishing on the lower Columbia River appear to be drifting apart, like an unmoored boat bobbing away from a dock. Since 1915, the states have agreed on how to manage the salmon industry on more than...

Gillnets on Columbia River: The long-standing debate roars back

Oregon and Washington's plans for regulating commercial fishing on the lower Columbia River appear to be drifting apart, like an unmoored boat bobbing away from a dock.

Since 1915, the states have agreed on how to manage the salmon industry on more than 145 shared miles of the river - from the mouth to Bonneville Dam. Five years ago, they decided they would phase out gillnets on the main channel of the Columbia by 2017 as part of a broader package of river reforms.

But now, Oregon is wavering: Last month, the state's Fish & Wildlife Commission voted to delay implementing gillnet reforms for a year.

The decision raised alarm bells across the river, prompting a coalition of 36 Washington state lawmakers to send a letter to fish and wildlife leaders expressing concern about Oregon's reversal. Allowing commercial gillnets in the main channel of the river is a "highly controversial" move that would "negatively impact recreational fisheries from the river's mouth to the upper Columbia in Eastern Washington," they wrote.

It also resurrected a more than century-old debate with a vengeance.

Washington's commission is expected to meet Saturday in Vancouver and decide what it wants to do.

Gillnet opponents contend the delay has nothing to do with fish but is rather a cynical move, enabled by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, to win support of an influential lawmaker with close ties to the commercial fishing industry. Supporters say that's nonsense. They argue that it's a natural time to reevaluate river reforms set in motion by former Gov. John Kitzhaber, because the plan doesn't do enough to help commercial fishermen and will cost Oregonians access to a prized culinary icon.

"The governor is 100 percent responsible for this," said Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton), a lawmaker and avid fisherman who opposed gillnets for years amid concerns for wild salmon and steelhead runs. "This is a political pawn for her," he said of the gillnet debate. "She wants to do better in Clatsop County, and that's what this is all about. It's all political."

Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), the influential Democrat in question, said that while she and Girod were "at each other's throats" on the gillnet issue years ago, she finds hurtful the accusations of political horse-trading.

"There was no quid pro quo with the governor," Johnson told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for the governor, said she has not given any direction to the fish and wildlife commission one way or another. "She respects the process," he said. "They are meeting next week." Hockaday also said the governor appoints commissioners based on their qualifications.

Johnson said the underlying conflict in Oregon pits commercial fisherman against recreational anglers for access to salmon, and that's just an argument that dates to the 1880s.

Limiting commercial fishermen's access would open up more fishing opportunities for sport anglers. But the commercial side said they would lose the bulk of their income.

"What we really have here are two groups fighting over who catches the most fish," she said, then paused.

"Or the last fish."

CASCADE LOCKS, OREGON - September 6, 2012 - Tribal gillnet fisherman pull in chinook on the Columbia River, Thurs, Sep 6, 2012. The fall chinook run has been very good this year and some fisherman have improved their storage and marketing techniques to make more money. Thomas Boyd/The OregonianThomas Boyd, Thomas Boyd, Thomas Boyd 

Path to compromise

Oregon and Washington's path to this uncertain moment was set in motion by Kitzhaber in response to a 2012 ballot measure to ban commercial gillnets from the Columbia River. It was backed by a bipartisan coalition of Oregon lawmakers and coastal anglers and didn't apply to tribes.

"The governor came to us and asked that we consider another approach," said David Schamp, chair of the board at Oregon's branch of the nonprofit Coastal Conservation Association. "Something that obviously, we weren't enthusiastic about at all."

Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, said his group was skeptical about supporting the compromise at first. But they won assurances that gillnets would be more closely regulated and decided it was a win. "A 100-year-old conflict resolved, we can move out to other things," he said of his group's rationale.

A 'lightning rod' commissioner If there's one unelected Oregonian who gillnet opponents blame for derailing the reform process, it's Astoria resident Bruce Buckmaster. Brown appointed Buckmaster to the seven-person Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission in April, 2015. The State Senate voted 18-12 to confirm him that May. On popular fishing websites like ifish.net, Buckmaster is referred to as a gillnet strategist, gillnet lobbyist and a shill for the industry. He's pointed to the state law that outlines a need for "adaptive management" techniques to help fisheries, such as boosting hatchery levels and tweaking fishing seasons and where fish are allocated, if the reforms are ineffective. Dave Schamp, the chairman of Oregon's Coastal Conservation Association, says Buckmaster is doing whatever he can to unravel the plan. "Commissioner Buckmaster is trying to change the entire foundation of those reforms. That's not adaptive," he said, "that's destructive." Buckmaster said he knows he's a lightning rod on the issue, but he said he doesn't have any particular affection for gillnetting. His main argument is that there should be room for the small boat commercial industry in the heart of the river. "Nobody has demonstrated to my satisfaction yet that there's something inherently bad about the way these family fishermen are fishing," Buckmaster said. He points out he's just one of seven voices on the commission and says the plan has yet to live up to its billing of enhancing opportunities for the industry. "If there were an environmental or management reason to get rid of this fishery, I think we'd have to look at it," he said.

Gillnet opponents didn't campaign for their hard-won statewide Measure 81, which had already qualified for the ballot, and threw their support behind the governor's plan. The measure would fail in November.

Kitzhaber and state lawmakers agreed to phase-in restrictions on commercial fisheries over a few years and the eventual plan, Senate Bill 830 passed in 2013, also created a $9.75 fee to fish on the Columbia. The compromise would only allow gillnets on certain channels of the Columbia by 2017, and set vague conservation goals with promises to "enhance the economic viability of Oregon's recreational and commercial fisheries and the communities that rely on these fisheries."

Lawmakers created a "transition fund" to help benefit commercial fishermen harmed economically by the gillnet reforms.

The plan allowed for "adaptive management actions" to help the commercial industry if the reform package's intended goals were not realized. Washington followed suit.

What is gillnetting

In the Columbia River, commercial fishing boats are typically small crews of one or two people.

According to state officials, 148 permitted gillnetting boats fished Oregon's waters in 2016.

Gillnets are walls of mesh netting that are thrown out into the water and anchored with buoys at the surface. Fish are unable to swim through because their gills get caught in the mesh when they try to back out.

The nets are controversial in some waterways because other they indiscriminately capture anything in their path. They are "a major source of mortality" for all sea turtle species," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "and are risks to large marine animals as well."

They are specifically used to trap salmon and other species of fish.

What opponents say

One of the principal complaints from recreational anglers is that gillnetters get an outsized amount of attention from state leaders.

According to state figures, more than 554,000 Oregonians purchased a fishing license last year. Of that figure, 165,000 fished the Columbia and paid the $9.75 fee, bringing in $1.3 million.

In a letter to Brown's office, four sports-angling associations argued that recreational fishing generates more than $30 million for the state each year through tourism, fees and other factors.

"There is little debate that the economic value of a Columbia River sport-caught salmon easily exceeds the value of salmon caught and sold commercially," the group wrote. While acknowledging commercial fisheries contribute to coastal economies, the leaders said, "only 85 permit holders had landing values exceeding $10,000. Only four permit holders had landings greater than $50,000."

Schamp, one of those angling leaders, says gillnets are archaic tools that threaten the livelihood of 13 endangered or threatened species of salmon and steelhead that navigate the river. "We don't a have an issue with the commercial fishery at all. It's the method. We need to be selective," he said.

Seine nets, which involve encircling fish then gradually pulling in the lines around them, are a better way to ensure native fish aren't illegally caught, Schamp said,

It's a long debated alternative. A Washington pilot study determined seines were more harmful than gillnets. But Schamp said that study was flawed.

"When you have a mixed stock fishery, hatchery fish, wild fish, swimming into that," he said of gillnets, "It doesn't know the difference."

Schamp and Pedery say gillnetters' assertion that they would be devastated by moving their fisheries off the main swath of the river are unfounded.

"They make this claim that they are being devastated by these reforms, but there's no evidence of that," Schamp said.

Rick Hargrave, an ODFW spokesman, said the state's economic assistance program of $1 million for commercial fishermen hasn't been used. "We are not aware of any associated claims of economic harm by commercial fishers requesting reimbursement," Hargrave said in an email.

Cathlamet, Washington -- 10/5/10 -- The Viking Queen sets out a purse seine net on the Columbia River during this trial program to see if commercial fishing can be altered to not kill so many wild, federally protected salmon. Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian 

No time to fish

One of the main arguments by gillnet advocates goes like this: Do you enjoy eating fresh Oregon salmon at restaurants or from stores? Then you want gillnetting and commercial fishing to continue.

Johnson, the state senator, said the commercial fishery represents a significant economic boon to the coastal region - and to non-fishing Oregonians.

"I don't have time to go fish," Johnson said. "I go to my fishmonger, and I'm able to buy this magnificent culinary delight. There's benefit on both sides."

Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries of Astoria and a board member of the pro-gillnetting association Salmon for All, said commercial fishermen are unfairly criticized on several fronts.

"We've tried seining, we've tried fish traps, we've tried hooks and lines," he said. None are as safe or effective as gillnets.

The commercial side doesn't get enough credit either, he said, for changing the type of netting it uses and where and when gillnetters fish.

"We've been very responsible," he said. "We want to see a sustainable ongoing natural resource too. That's paramount to our industry."

If the Kitzhaber plan was fully implemented, he said, fisherman would lose two-thirds of their income.

While most gillnetters have other jobs, the ripple effect of losing that income would trickle down to fish processers, restaurants and other coastal industries that depend on the fishery.

"Local businesses, local fishermen are the fabric who give you the philanthropic dollars," he said. "That's the fabric that sees that you have a little league game, a library, a swimming pool."

What happens next

What happens next is anyone's guess.

It's possible Oregon and Washington could have different policies for managing the river. Oregon's commission will meet again Jan. 20.

Washington's commission also will consider delaying their reforms, but it could also proceed as planned. That could open the door to lawsuits and daily enforcement headaches.

"That's not a good place to be," said Tucker Jones, ODFW's ocean salmon and Columbia River program manager. "We have non-concurring regulations. Now things don't work out.

"How do you do that?" he said.

"In theory, a Washington angler wouldn't be able to fish in Oregon waters," he said. That leads to obvious enforcement issues, Jones said.

Hockaday, the governor's spokesman, said Oregon always wants to stay on the same page as Washington. It's too soon to see how it plays all. "We will continue to do our best," he said.

Girod and Schamp, who led the 2012 ballot measure alongside Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland), said it's possible another ballot fight crops up if Oregon further delays gillnet reforms.

Johnson said whatever happens, it won't be a new fight.

"We're probably signing up for another 100 years of debate," she said.


-- Andrew Theen
[email protected]
503-294-4026
@andrewtheen

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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