New era looms for lower Columbia salmon fisheries

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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For decades, sport and commercial fishermen have fought in legislative halls, before state wildlife commissions and in countless other forums over the allocation of salmon and sturgeon in the Columbia River.

Come Dec. 7 at the Holiday Inn Portland Airport and Jan. 11-12 in Olympia, the goal of sportsmen to move the gillnetters off the lower Columbia River is expected to make a major leap toward reality.

The Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions will be voting on proposals to make sports fishing the priority on the main stem lower Columbia and to gradually move gillnetting primarily to off-channel locations.

Since September, a committee of three Washington and three Oregon commissioners has been working out the details of the biggest change in lower Columbia fisheries management in 80 years.

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Columbia River fisheries reform

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In simplest terms, off-channel areas such as Youngs Bay, Tongue Point, Blind Slough and Deep River will be stocked with additional salmon and gillnetting limited to those spots.

"It will be the end of the commercial fishery on the Columbia River,'' said Jim Wells, head of Salmon For All, an Astoria based commercial fishing group.

Sportsmen will get larger allocations of salmon in main Columbia. In fact, by 2017, sportsmen will get 100 percent of the summer chinook.

"People have done their very best to redesign these fisheries to be more productive and reasonable long-term,'' said Jim Martin, conservation director of Pure Fishing, a group of fishing tackle makers. "This is a good example of getting ready for the future.''

The new plan is complicated, loaded with details, depends on unsure financing and carries a great deal of uncertainty.

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

Also under consideration is a five-fish limit on spring chinook in the Columbia, required use of barbless hooks, rubber landing nets for sportsmen and a sport-fishing closure zone in a popular portion of Buoy 10.

All this 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.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber then 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, although the issue still garnered 34 percent voter support despite a campaign against it and no campaign in favor.

Accompanying this story is a graphic comparing the status quo, the proposals for 2013-16 and those for 2017 and beyond. In addition, here are some of the discussion topics — species by species:

Spring chinook — The plan calls for releasing 1 million additional spring chinook smolts in the off-channel areas. That would be 750,000 on the Oregon side and 250,000 in Washington.

The commercials point out the off-channel areas are not particularly large and saturated with netters now. Gillnetter Chris Doumit referred to them as "side ditches.''

The Deep River off-channel area — the only off-channel site on the Washington side — has been getting 350,000 spring chinook smolts and adult returns of fewer than 100 fish, said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The plan is for a different location for the additional 250,000 spring chinook smolts, possibly Cathlamet Channel, Norman said. Cathlamet Channel is the portion of the Columbia between the Washington mainland and and Puget Island in Wahkiakum County.

The sport share of spring chinook increases from about 60 percent now to 70 percent in 2013-16 and 80 percent in 2017 and beyond. The 20 to 30 percent commercial share covers the straying of upper Columbia spring chinook into the off-channel areas.

Summer chinook — The current sharing is 50-50 downstream of Priest Rapids Dam.

The bulk of the summer chinook allocation already goes upstream of Priest Rapids Dam, where there is no non-Indian commercial fishing. That will not change.

Of the allocation downstream of Priest Rapids Dam, sportsmen will get 60 percent in 2013 and 2014, 70 percent in 2015 and 2016 and 100 percent beginning in 2017.

This change gives the gillnetters no shortage of angst. They are cut out of the new Chief Joseph Hatchery with a large increase in summer chinook releases coming on line soon in Eastern Washington.

Robert Sudar, a buyer in Longview, said that while the commercials did not catch a large number of summer chinook, those fish fetched $5 a pound and came at a time when there were not a lot of other salmon on the market.

"Once again our interest is so casually tossed aside,'' Sudar said.

Summer chinook return far into north-central Washington. Washington commission member Gary Douvia of Kettle Falls said summer chinook are very important to inland anglers.

Thirty-nine percent of the $8.25 Columbia River salmon and steelhead fishing license surcharge fee in Washington originates in Eastern Washington.

"They are critical to the total package,'' Douvia said.

To compensate the commercials, 750,000 bright fall chinook smolts will be added to the off-channel areas. Those fish, of Rogue River-origin, return in early August.

Wells, also a commercial fisherman, said 750,000 smolts will return about 2,200 adults, which first have to negotiate through the maze of sport boats at Buoy 10 to make it back to the Youngs Bay off-channel spot at Astoria.

He asked for a no-sport-fishing zone from Hammond to Desdemona Sands to the Astoria Bridge to allow those adult chinook to make it back to Youngs Bay.

Fall chinook — The commercials are expected to make a big share of their income in the future catching fall chinook salmon, particularly the brights heading for Eastern Washington.

The goal is to have this big harvest come from the Columbia River using beach seines and purse seines. The lion's share of this harvest will come between the mouth of the Lewis River and Bonneville Dam.

Upstream of the Lewis, there are relatively few wild tule fall chinook, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and limit harvest of other fall chinook.

However, many commercial fishermen do not like fishing in this stretch of the river.

The bi-state committee of Washington and Oregon commission members danced around the question if whether large-mesh gillnets still could be used upstream of the Lewis River after 2016.

Seines might not work as well in this stretch of the Columbia and gillnets might be needed to achieve a level of harvest sufficient to keep the commercials in business.

The goal is no gillnets, but a lot of ambiguous and fuzzy language surrounds this topic.

Coho — Gillnets would be allowed through 2016 for coho in the main stem. Beginning in 2017, tangle nets or other selective gear would be allowed in main Columbia.

A tangle-net fishery for late-stock coho in October is another spot where the commercials are expected to gain to compensate for losses in spring and summer chinook.

The plan also calls for an additional 1.9 million coho released in the off-channel areas, where they can be a gillnetted upon return as adults.

Coho do not bite sport gear well once they leave the estuary. There would be no change in the existing allocation.

Sockeye — Through 2016, the split would be 70 percent sport and 30 percent commercial. The allocation would shift beginning in 2017 to 80 percent sport.

Sockeye runs are expected to grow as habitat improvements in Canada continue. Yet sockeye headed for Idaho are on the endangered species list and the return timing of sockeye overlaps with spring and summer chinook.

The three factors combine to make sockeye management challenging.

Sturgeon — The 80 percent sport-20 percent commercial allocation will continue, but it may be mostly moot.

The lower Columbia sturgeon population is in decline and no retention of sturgeon in either the sport or commercial fishery looks likely beginning in 2013.

Other issues

There are several peripheral issues that appear likely as part of the fisheries reform.

• Barbless hooks are anticipated in all Columbia and tributary fisheries for salmon and steelhead.

• Rubber landing nets probably will become the rule in all Columbia River salmon, steelhead and sturgeon fisheries. This would be phased-in to give suppliers time to ramp up.

• There was talk of requiring fishing guides to have recovery boxes on their boats. Later, the bi-state committee chose a path that requires a recovery box if a wild fish is taken out of the water for release.

• The committee agreed in principle to a five-fish seasonal limit on spring chinook caught in the Columbia through June 15.

• The bi-state committee also agreed on the concept of sport-fishing closure zones adjacent to existing and new off-channel areas.

• Two Oregon-only issues also are on the table. It is suggested Oregon initiate a Columbia River sport-fishing surcharge license, as is done in Washington. Limiting the number of fishing guides in Oregon also was suggested.

Washington has limitations on guides downstream of Longview. Oregon's guide program is managed by the Oregon Marine Board, not the Department of Fish and Wildlife.