COLUMBIA RIVER — Ten fishermen are expected to participate in a commercial seine fishery on the Columbia River in August. Unlike last year, however, the wild fish they catch will now directly affect other commercial fishermen on the river.
All fishermen on the river — both sport and commercial — are limited to a certain percentage of wild salmon they are allowed to catch, handle or keep. Last year, the first commercial seine fishery in more than 50 years fished the river but operated under “research impacts” rather than regular commercial impacts. As the seiners landed fish, any wild fish that got mixed into the nets didn’t get deducted from regular commercial impacts.
This year they will.
According to a Non-Indian Columbia River Summer/Fall Fishery Allocation Agreement finalized by the Washington and Oregon Fish and Wildlife Departments in May, purse and beach seiners will be allowed 10 percent of the 30 percent of Lower Columbia River wild impacts allocated to commercial fishermen on the river. Sport fishermen take the remaining 70 percent.
Once fishermen hit those percentages, fishing must stop in that particular fishery. Fishery managers expect the seiners will catch around 5,000 adult Chinook salmon. They will be allowed to fish from the easterly tip of Oregon’s Tongue Point to just past the Sandy River, Columbia River Zones 2 through 4.
Oregon and Washington’s fish and wildlife departments sent out letters to commercial fishermen, asking them to apply to fish the gear on the river. The fishermen will need to show that they have the gear and know how to use it. The final 10 — six will run beach seines, and four will run purse seines — will be selected by lottery, according to John North, Columbia River program manager for ODFW.
At the same time, the fish and wildlife departments expect to contract at least one purse seiner and one beach seiner to fish Zone 5, another non-tribal commercial fishing zone which runs almost to Bonneville Dam, according to the allocation agreement.
Making seines work
These fishermen will continue the research work that began several years ago following a plan by former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2012 to phase out gillnet fishing on the mainstem of the river and replace it with seines. They will gather information on stock composition (a count of which fish the nets are snagging) and collect tags and DNA information to figure out if the seines are targeting the same fish as the gillnet fleet.
Previous tests of the seine gear resulted in high — even what fishery managers have called “unsustainable” — mortality rates in protected fish, meaning too many fish were likely to die after being caught and handled. These numbers have been contested and challenged by other numbers. But the plan operates under “adaptive management” principals, meaning the two states can continue to refine and study the components of the plan until it works. Or until it doesn’t.
“That’s a ‘catch all’ thing,” said Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator with WDFW, about adaptive management. “Right now my job is to find a way to make seines work.”
“If we’re going to move forward we need to have a solid release mortality number in place and I don’t think we’re there yet,” he added.
Though Oregon and Washington have been testing the seines ever since Kitzhaber’s plan passed, fishery managers say they still need more information about what the boats are catching and what using that style of net means for salmon.
There’s a wealth of data for gillnets, but seines have been illegal on the river in Washington since 1935 and in Oregon since 1950.
Also many things have changed since Kitzhaber first proposed and then passed his plan. For one, he is no longer governor. He resigned in February amid a major ethics scandal and is under criminal investigation.
The make-up of the two Fish and Wildlife Department Commissions has also changed. In April, Oregon’s new governor, Kate Brown, appointed commercial gillnet industry lobbyist Bruce Buckmaster to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, prompting immediate outcry from groups in Oregon’s sport fishing community. They asked Brown to rescind the appointment, but Buckmaster’s appointment was approved by the state Senate at the end of May.
Many local gillnetters, who have been gradually moved off the mainstem of the Columbia River and into side areas called “select fishing areas,” have fought the reintroduction of seines. They say they and their nets are being forced off the water in the name of fish conservation and protection only to be replaced by gear that causes far more havoc on fish runs.