In Our View: Regulate Gillnets

Gov. Kitzhaber's proposal warrants approval by both states

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Those who catch salmon for sport have seemingly forever been at odds with those who catch fish for money. The first group targets individual fish with hooks. The second group catches large amounts of fish with gillnets that make no distinction between endangered fish and others; separation and release of the fish is left up to the gillnetters. There are just so many fish to go around. Indeed, 13 species of salmon and steelhead are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has formulated a complex but proper solution to this lengthy disagreement. Setting aside the myriad details, we can report that his proposal would prioritize sport fishing over commercial fishing by banning gillnets in the Columbia River main stem, allowing the controversial equipment in off-channel areas. The plan would be phased in through 2017, with concessions to commercial fishermen to include increased stocking of the river's side channels with salmon.

A bistate committee has been finalizing details of Kitzhaber's plan. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal when it meets today in Portland. We hope the commission approves what Columbian outdoors writer Al Thomas describes as "the biggest change in lower Columbia fisheries management in 80 years." And we hope Washington's commission follows suit when it meets Jan. 11-12 in Olympia (a public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Olympia). Tribal fishing policies would not be affected by the change.

Commercial fishermen, of course, are outraged at the proposal. The Daily Astorian reports that fourth-generation commercial fisherman Otis Hunsinger, brought his newborn child to a recent joint meeting of Oregon and Washington commissioners and proclaimed, "You know, if you keep pushing this, maybe you can take the bottle right out of my kid's mouth."

Their concern is understandable. But The Columbian agrees with Kitzhaber's comments in his Aug. 9 letter to the Oregon commission. He wrote that reform is needed to serve both recreational and commercial fisheries "within a conservation-based framework." He also described the need to "minimize mortality of ESA-listed and non-target fish and optimize recovery." Most decisively, Kitzhaber wrote, "the use of gillnets in nontribal main-stem fisheries is inconsistent with this objective."

Although the conservation component is key in this long-fought battle, there also are economic factors in play. As Kitzhaber noted, both sides in the dispute provide "valuable jobs and millions of dollars of economic activity." But only about 200 commercial fishermen would be affected by the change in gillnet regulations. By contrast, sport fishermen in Washington state alone in the past three years have pumped $1.8 million into state coffers with the purchase of 220,000 Columbia River fishing stamps.

Approval of Kitzhaber's plan would not trigger an instant solution. As Thomas reported, it is "complicated, loaded with details, depends on unsure financing and carries a great deal of uncertainty."

But the potential gains -- especially the long-term protection of fisheries and recovery rates of endangered salmon -- are worth the effort and the risk.

This issued appeared on the Oregon ballot on Nov. 6 but was rejected by voters after Kitzhaber's compromise enticed reformists to back off on their support of controversial Measure 81. Now, though, the commissions of both states are urged to take this necessary step toward compromise and resolution of this decades-long discord.