States seek common ground on river policy

Washington state and Oregon are discussing how to deal with gillnets on the Columbia River.

SALEM — Washington state and Oregon are still figuring out what to do with gillnets on the Columbia River.

A committee that includes fish and wildlife commissioners from both states met for the first time Jan. 17 with staff in Salem to go over areas where the states maintain different policies for the river.

They made no decisions. Rather, the meeting provided commissioners with a chance to delve into their opinions about what needs to be considered when it comes to the river’s salmon fisheries.

There is pressure on the commissions to maintain similar rules for the fisheries this year. In recent years, the states, which manage the fisheries jointly, have diverged, sometimes markedly, on what they want to allow on the river.

Since 2013, Washington and Oregon have operated under the Columbia River Reform Plan — also known as the Kitzhaber Plan after its champion, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber — to phase gillnets off the main stem.

Under the plan, gillnetters were directed to off-channel fishing areas, including Youngs Bay neighboring Astoria. These areas cannot support the fleet, commercial fishermen argue. But conservationists say the change was necessary to protect wild salmon runs.

Both sides argue about the effectiveness of gillnets — nets that hang vertically in the water and catch fish by the gills — to catch targeted fish and avoid threatened or endangered fish.

A majority on Oregon’s commission has been open to allowing gillnetters some time back on the main stem. Recent assessments by fish and wildlife staff on both sides of the river concluded neither recreational nor commercial fishermen have seen the expected economic benefits under the plan, nor have other gear options done a better job at protecting salmon. Washington has continued to explore gear alternatives and has not been as interested in putting gillnets back on the river.

Immediate issues

The joint committee that met Jan. 17 discussed immediate issues with this year’s river policies. They plan to begin developing recommendations ahead of the regular season-setting process in March.

Right now, there are catch allocation differences for the fall Chinook run and — a big sticking point — differences in gear Oregon allows during the spring Chinook season.

Oregon allows the use of commercial tangle nets if run sizes hold and not too many wild fish have been handled in the early part of the spring season.

Washington does not allow any main stem commercial fishing of spring Chinook, and Washington Commissioner David Graybill argued against any change to that policy. He also questioned Oregon’s policy.

Oregon Commissioners Holly Akenson and Bruce Buckmaster hoped discussions of this year’s fisheries could act as a way to address overall changes to the Kitzhaber Plan.

They argued the states need to hit pause on the plan, reassess and figure out new ways to meet the plan’s goals of conservation, orderly fisheries and enhanced economic opportunities. The original plan, as executed, appears to have failed, Buckmaster maintained.

Washington Commissioners Bob Kehoe and Don McIsaac were not opposed to this approach, especially where the economics of the fisheries are concerned, but McIsaac emphasized the need to address the 2019 season.

“We are in crisis with these runs,” Graybill protested.

“We need to take care of these fish first of all.”

“We cannot go backwards,” he said.

Early forecasts predict low returns of spring Chinook. Last year and this winter, adult salmon and steelhead returns to the river came in below predictions, leading to fishing closures throughout the region.

Liz Hamilton, director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and a longtime proponent of the Kitzhaber Plan, agreed with Graybill. She listened to the committee meeting from a seat in the audience.

“I think this is going in the wrong direction and I think it’s very misguided,” she said afterward. “In light of the condition of the runs, the condition of orcas, the optics of growing gillnets in the Columbia River is not going to play well in the public. It’s not going to play well in the Legislature.

“We’re already hearing from legislators that they’re really tired of hearing this issue hacked out again and again and again.”

New bill

A bill introduced Jan. 14 in the Oregon Legislature would take a more definitive step against the use of gillnets and tangle nets in the state’s commercial fisheries. Senate Bill 547, sponsored by state Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, calls for an outright ban of the gear except in tribal fisheries.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and has yet to gain any other sponsors.

Jim Wells, president of the gillnet advocacy group Salmon For All, sat several rows in front of Hamilton at the Jan. 17 meeting. He saw the committee’s discussion as a positive step, especially with a number of commissioners clearly advocating for another look at the Kitzhaber Plan. He says gillnetters have only seen their economic opportunities decline since the plan began to phase them off the river.

The committee will meet again in early February to keep talking about options for this year’s fisheries and the long term.

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