COLUMBIA RIVER - The battle lines are drawn for the next two years of Columbia River salmon fishing seasons, which are up for review by Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions.
Tensions are so thick between the sport and commercial gill-net fishing industries - which have to split the highly coveted allocation of spring Chinook salmon - a professional mediator has been called in to guide negotiations leading up to the February decision on how to divvy up the valuable species.
A new group, the Coastal Conservation Association, is expected to add its political clout to the recreational fishing industry's fight for more fish.
Gillnetters say the CCA's long-term aim is to get commercial fishers banned from the mainstem Columbia River salmon fishery.
The state boards vote every two years on adjustments to the allocation of spring Chinook salmon, whose dwindling runs make it the limiting factor in the length of several valuable fishing seasons on the river.
Though the commissions will also address summer and fall Chinook in February, the spring Chinook decision is critical because of restrictions triggered by the Endangered Species Act. Harvest impacts to ESA-listed spring Chinook can be limited less than 2 percent of the entire run. That percentage gets divided up between sport and commercial groups and applied to fisheries that are likely to impact the threatened species.
"It's high-profile because the allocations of the impact for spring Chinook drives your access, your fishing opportunity, whether commercial or sport," said John North, fisheries management program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Both parties like to get as much opportunity as they can; they're both limited by these impacts to listed fish,"
Last time the issue came up, in January 2006, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jon Englund of Astoria was shunned by the sportfishing industry for voting to increase the commercial share of spring Chinook. Some recreational fishers vowed to take revenge by boycotting Englund's businesses, including Ilwaco's and Astoria's Englund Marine Supply.
This year, in an attempt to work out differences between the groups early in the process, the states are convening a stakeholder group of about a dozen representatives from the sport and commercial fishing industries to negotiate their desired outcomes. The first stakeholder meeting was Tuesday in Vancouver.
But the stakeholder process isn't the only new twist this year. Gillnetters on the lower Columbia River are on guard against an organization called the Coastal Conservation Association, a politically charged national group that recently set up local chapters in Oregon and Washington. The group aims to be a new player in the spring Chinook reallocation process.
Other branches of the CCA have fought hard to get commercial gill-nets banned in Gulf Coast waters, and they've succeeded to various degrees in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
According to the Oregon CCA President Mads Ledet of Gresham, the inability of commercial gillnets on the Columbia River to target individual salmon will be an issue for CCA. But, he said in previous CCA battles, sport fishers have also suffered cuts to their fishing seasons.
But Jim Wells, president of the gillnetting group Salmon For All, said the CCA is notorious for being anti-commercial fishing, and it's coming to the Pacific Northwest "to get rid of the gillnetters. Next it will be the trollers."
"Make no mistake," he wrote in a letter to The Daily Astorian. "The CCA is for the elimination of commercial fishing nationwide."
Salmon For All has teamed up with other fishing-related businesses on the lower Columbia - including Coho Charters of Ilwaco, Tiki Charters of Astoria and Westport Charters - to prove sport and commercial fishers can get along. Wells said the conflict between sport and gillnet fishers is driven by fishing guides farther upriver near Portland and Vancouver.