Fearing eventual elimination of their livelihood, Columbia River gillnetters have ripped Washington and Oregon officials over a program to test seines and other alternative commercial salmon fishing methods.
"I'll bet you don't have 10 percent of the gillnet fleet that supports this seine fishery,'' said Fred Ostling, a Cathlamet gillnetter, at meeting in Astoria last week. "What are the rest of us going to do when you implement this? Are we just out in the cold?''
The Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife have spent about $3.2 million since 2009 contracting with commercial fishermen to test purse seines, beach seines, tangle nets, a floating trap and trolling.
Seines are not legal commercial fishing gear in the Columbia.
Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said that with 13 salmon or steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act commercial fisheries keep getting reduced.
Yet there are surpluses at hatcheries and hatchery salmon are on the spawning grounds of wild fish, he said.
Hatchery funding could be in jeopardy unless ways are found to harvest more of those fish, Norman said.
The test fishing is the first step to see if the additional commercial fishing methods are feasible technically and viable economically, said Steve Williams, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Even if the methods prove workable, it would require a change in Oregon state law to implement them commercially, he added.
But at the Astoria meeting, state officials heard complaint after complaint about the testing of alternatives to gillnets.
Bill Hunsinger of Astoria, a gillnetter and port commissioner, said testing purse seines right below hoglines of sportsmen this fall was a terrible decision politically, especially with an anti-commercial fishing ballot measure possible in Oregon in 2012.
"To seine in front of these people (sportsmen) is probably the worst thing that could happen to our industry as far as publicity in the last 100 years,'' Hunsinger said. "You guys are destroing the gillnet fishery — the states of Oregon and Washington — with your seine ideas, which are illegal.''
Four beach and purse seiners, one each upstream and downstream of the Longview-Rainier bridge, would have been adequate testing, he said.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a seine works...that's one of the reasons it was outlawed,'' Hunsinger said. "I will do everything in my power to try to stop it.''
Jack Marincovich of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, an Astoria-base gillnet group, said switching from gillnets to seines would cut the commercial fleet from 170 active boats to about 18.
Marincovich criticized the states for using federal Mitchell Act money to pay for part of the research when that money could be better used to raise fish in hatcheries. He also asked if there will be program to buy back the boats of displaced gillnetters.
"The worst it's done is already split our fishermen up,'' Marincovich said. "We've got an initiative petition in Salem we're going to have to fight to survive and we've already got fishermen divided. You're just creating a bunch of problems we don't need.''
He said the seining adds fuel to the sport-commercial conflict on the lower Columbia.
"It's turning more sportsmen bitter than were already bitter,'' Marincovich said.
Ostling said a purse seiner fished daily for two weeks on his drift prior to a fishing period.
"Does test fishing have priority over a gillnet opening?'' he asked.
Jim Wells of Salmon For All, another Astoria-based commercial group, asked the states to give the gillnetters a guaranteed share of the "impacts'' of weak stocks of Columbia River fish so the gillnetters will not lose catch to a seine fishery.
"I know you're not going to take them from the sport fishery,'' he said.
The purse seine testing has been done during the day. Seining during the night to avoid conflict with sportsmen would be much more difficult, Wells said.
He predicted seining could displace 90 percent of the gillnet fleet.
Wells also questioned the survival of fish release from a seine.
"We believe it is low at the start...you've got almost zero immediate mortality, but what about long-term scale loss,'' he asked. "Will the states really give us the accurate numbers on that or are they going to artificially lower it down to make it work and save their hatchery programs?''
Salmon For All is finding it hard to support additional testing, he said.
"This whole thing is fracturing our organization,'' Wells said.
Commercial fisherman Terry Ostling said the state observers in the testing program are not qualified and that scale loss from seining causes fish eventually to die.
"You try to jam something like this down our throats and it just sucks,'' he said.
Hunsinger said the contracts for the alternative gear testing are $70,000 to $100,000.
"You are paying these guys ridiculous amounts of money,'' he said.
Officials from both states said more alternative gear testing is planned for 2012 and 2013.
Oregon intends to repeat tests of purse seining for shad, test purse and beach seines in the summer, use beach seines for unmarked coho in the fall and test net in the Grant Slough-Prairie Channel area. Oregon also plans to issue a permit to test a fish wheel for shad.
Washington will continue to use beach and purse seines to capture, tag and release fish for a long-term mortality study. Washington also may conduct more beach seine and purse seine testing in the lower Columbia.
Williams said a decision to use seines commercially will involve the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and the state Legislature and be made after evaluation of the years of testing.