Oregon votes to phase gillnetters off main stem Columbia River

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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PORTLAND — The biggest revamping of lower Columbia River sport and commercial fishing regulations in 80 years began Friday, when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the shifting of gillnets into off-channel areas.

Washington's commission will hear public comment on Dec. 15 in Olympia on the plan to make sport fishing the priority in the main river and move gillnets into spots like Youngs Bay and Blind Slough near Astoria.

Washington is scheduled to make its decision Jan. 11-12, also in Olympia.

"Our fishery has been designated for execution,'' Robert Sudar of Longview, a fish buyer, told the Oregon commission.

But Trey Carskadon, a member of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, called it "a better future for the Columbia River.''

The fisheries overhaul — the most sweeping since fish wheels were outlawed in the mid-1930s — was jump-started when sport-fishing and conservation interests got Measure 81 on the November ballot in Oregon. The measure would have outlawed gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon waters — and much of the lower Columbia is on the Oregon side of the boundary.

In August, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber advanced a compromise proposal to continue use of gillnets, but only in the off-channel areas, plus prioritizing sport fishing.

Sport interests agreed to abandon Measure 81 in favor of the Kitzhaber plan.

A group of three Oregon and three Washington commission members worked in September, October and November to add specifics to Kitzhaber's plan.

The new plan is complicated, loaded with details, depends on unsure financing and carries a great deal of uncertainty. It includes stocking additional salmon in the off-channel areas and limiting gillnets to those locations.

It involves developing alternative methods — beach seines and purse seines — for use in commercial fisheries at times and locations in the lower Columbia.

In Oregon, the seines currently are illegal for commercial use and will require authorizing legislation.

The plan has a 2013-16 "transition'' phase, then a 2017-and-beyond final phase.

It boosts the sport share of spring chinook from the current 60 percent to 80 percent by 2017 and summer chinook from 50 percent sport in the lower Columbia to between 80 percent and 100 percent by 2017.

Brett Brownscombe, Kitzhaber's natural resources adviser, told the Oregon commission that the governor has included at least $5.2 million in the state's proposed 2013-14 budget to help finance the reform.

That includes $2 million in general fund dollars, $1.6 million from lottery-backed bonds and $1.6 million from a proposed Columbia River surcharge on Oregon fishing licenses. Washington has a similar Columbia River endorsement fee, required to fish in the Columbia and its tributaries.

Oregon's commission voted 4-2 to adopt the fisheries reform, after listening to several hours of public testimony.

Darren Crookshanks of Longview, president of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, a commercial fishing group, said the reform will turn about 200 gillnetting jobs into a handful of fishermen who have the money to buy the new boats and gear necessary to seine.

"It's going to make a few people rich, while everyone else starves,'' he said.

Steve Gray, a commercial fisherman from Seaview, Wash., said the new plan will result in even more conflict with sportsmen.

Beach seiners need a sandy beach with a good slope, the same spots preferred by bank sport fishermen. Purse seine boats also are going to want to fish where sportsmen anchor in hoglines, he added.

Brownscombe said Kitzhaber wants an extensive annual review of how the reform is progressing.

"This is not a one-and-done issue,'' he said. "This is an issue that's been around 150 years.''

Crookshanks also said a lawsuit challenging the reform might be in the future.

"It's the public's resource, not the governor's,'' he said.