The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is to be commended for recognizing that a 2013 policy dictated by former Gov. John Kitzhaber to kick commercial salmon fishing off the Columbia River has failed.
It isn’t just Lower Columbia River residents who think so. Bobby Levy, former OFWC chair, commented on Facebook, “Oregon Fish and Wildlife commissioners did the fair and right thing! I applaud you!!” Levy led the commission in 2012 and 2013 when the two fish and wildlife commissions of Oregon and Washington headed down the path to implementing the Kitzhaber scheme.
Never fully thought out, gutting a century-long tradition of supplying local consumers with some of the salmon we support with our taxes and electric rates was largely the product of intense lobbying by one subset of recreational fishing, embodied by the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association. A long-successful alliance between different salmon-fishing interests was cast aside, resulting in a loss of important unified advocacy for salmon recovery in the Columbia estuary and basin.
Evicting gillnetters from the mainstem of the Columbia by Dec. 31, 2016 was premised on a number of assumptions, including:
• Successful alternative methods were supposed to be developed to gillnets, including seine nets deployed from vessels and the shoreline. These alternatives have failed to achieve goals in terms of catching fish or allowing naturally spawning salmon to be freed unharmed and returned to the water.
• Additional areas were supposed to be identified and developed where hatchery salmon could be reared in net pens. These select area fishery enhancement (SAFE) projects, like the one that already exists in Youngs Bay, nurture salmon that are specifically intended to be caught by commercial gillnetters. However, there are few locations suitable for SAFE projects — nowhere near enough to replace the opportunities provided in the river’s mainstem.
• Commercial fishermen were to be kept financially whole via state compensation, license and equipment buybacks and other measures. The states have failed to put their money where their mouths were, at least to an adequate extent to make up for the damages caused by the Kitzhaber scheme.
Oregon did the right thing with its open-ended deferral of dispossessing gillnetters of their livelihoods. Washington state commissioners, however, are motoring ahead with fishing restrictions, “calling into question how commercial and recreational fisheries will be managed on that part of the Columbia River that forms the border between the two states,” Columbia Basin Bulletin observed. (CBB has a good summary of these issues at www.cbbulletin.com/438251.aspx.)
This conflict between fishing regulations in the two states will require resolution. Oregon has jurisdiction over most of the Columbia estuary, with Washington controlling only a narrow band of water close to the north shore. Presumably, a short-term compromise can be worked out. In the longer term, a majority of Washington’s commission appears committed to eliminating gillnetting on the river, even calling for an aggressive license buyback program.
This comes at the same the Washington agency is cranking down commercial fishing on Willapa Bay, asserting escaped hatchery Chinook have now become “natural” salmon worthy of full-fledged conservation protections. This is disappointing. At the time of the 2013 decision to remove gillnets from the main Columbia, many envisioned Willapa could host some replacement commercial fishing, in effect becoming a SAFE area.
None of this means recreational fishing is unimportant or under-valued by the communities of the Columbia River and Willapa Bay. Sports fishing is a vital part of our local culture and economy. We would be at least equally opposed to curtailing recreational fisheries as we are to the ill-considered moves against gillnetting.
But by chopping gillnetting, Washington state directly threatens the financial stability of local families. There are fishing families who will no longer be able to anchor their lives here without the income that seasonal gillnetting represents. These are men and woman who will no longer shop in local stores, children who will no longer attend local schools.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should let his appointed commissioners know it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find a true path to the future for Columbia River commercial fishing.