Netters pan Columbia off-channel proposal

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A proposal to shift gillnetting to off-channel areas in the lower Columbia River has landed with a thud for commercial fishermen.

Commercial fishermen say there is no way Oregon can produce enough hatchery fish to make up for the loss of high-quality salmon caught in the main stem.

At the request of Gov. John Kitshaber, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has directed state fisheries managers to develop regulations that relegate commercial gillnetters to side bays and channels of the Columbia below Bonneville Dam.

In return, state salmon hatcheries would increase production just for them.

That would leave the main channel of the lower Columbia to sports anglers, giving them more fish to catch under restrictions intended to protect the 13 runs of threatened and endangered salmon.

“He’s going to have a real problem selling this,” said Jim Wells, president of Salmon For All, an Astoria-based commercial fishing group.

Wells said gillnetters get $3 a pound for wild fish caught in the main channel, but only 75 cents a pound for hatchery fish they catch in places like Youngs Bayand Tongue Point, where hatchery salmon are released specifically for commercial harvest.

Besides, the state does not have the funding or hatchery capacity to significantly increase production of young salmon, without taking them from the Willamette River, where Portland sports fishermen would howl in opposition, he said.

Wells added that taking gillnetters off the mainstem will not allow any more threatened and endangered fish to survive to spawn, because the allowances they currently get to kill protected fish would be transferred to sports anglers.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, said federal fisheries managers proposed in 1994 to get gillnetters out of the mainstem by 2002, and created the side channel fisheries to make up for the change.

“The first part of that promise was kept, but the second part wasn’t she said.

Hamilton added that gillnetters took 100,000 hatchery fish from those special fisheries, far more than all the fish taken from the mainstem by sports fishermen.

The Columbia River gillnet fleet now amounts to about 150 boats, which landed fish that sold for about $3 million last year.

On the Washington side of the river, Department of Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Guy Norman said they hoped to work out a way to keep Washington’s regulations compatible with Oregon’s, but reserved the right to go their own way.

Washington’s commission was briefed by wildlife director Phil Anderson on the Kitzhaber proposal during a conference call on Friday.

The proposal comes as sports fishing and conservation groups try to convince Oregon voters to support Ballot Measure 81, which would ban gillnetting from the Columbia, except by tribal fishermen. It would allow commercial fishing with seine nets.

Supporters argue it would stop a harvest method that makes it difficult to release threatened and endangered fish unharmed, and also takes a toll on birds and other wildlife.