Gillnetting delayed a week in lower Columbia River

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Washington and Oregon officials agreed Monday to delay the start of gillnetting for spring chinook salmon for a week to allow more wild winter steelhead to clear the lower Columbia River and move into the tributaries.

The Columbia River Compact met for more than an hour Monday before deciding not to put the commercial fleet in the water on Tuesday. The river is closed to sport fishing on Tuesday and again April 3 to allow the commercials to fish without conflict with the sport armada.

Eighteen test drifts with 4-1/4-inch-mesh nets on Sunday caught 38 chinook and 29 steelhead. Eighty-four percent of the chinook and 69 percent of the steelhead were fin-clipped hatchery fish.

However, the ratio of 1.3 chinook-to-steelhead is much lower than state officials want to see. Steelhead are a sport fish and cannot be kept by the commercials. Wild winter steelhead are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Kevleen Melcher of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said in 2010 and 2011 the ratios were from 5 to 7 chinook per steelhead in the initial commercial fishing period.

The netters would have used up about 25 percent of their allowed incidental kill of wild winter steelhead if an eight-hour gillnet fishery were allowed on Tuesday, said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It looks to me like we're about a week out from normal,'' said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

State officials will meet at 1 p.m. on April 2 to review test-fishing data from April 1 and decide on a commercial fishing period, expected to be on April 3.

"We need to get that fleet on the water next week,'' Norman said.

Twenty-four commercial fishermen testified at Monday's Columbia River Compact. The comments were mixed whether to fish this week or wait.

"It's time to get some fish on the market,'' said Bruce Crookshanks, a Washington gillnetter. Chinook from the Oregon troll fishery and the Copper River in Alaska will arrive on the market eventually and drive down the price paid for Columbia River spring chinook.

Gillnetter Jim Wells of Astoria said there are too wild steelhead still in the Columbia to fish this week.

Norman said he is confident the chinook-to-steelhead ratio will be better next week.