Sportsmen, commercials trade jabs over Columbia restructuring proposal

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Sportsmen supported and commercial fishing interests panned on Saturday the proposal to shift gillnetting off the main stem of the lower Columbia River and into off-channel areas.

The venue was a briefing and public hearing before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in Olympia.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wants the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to boost hatchery salmon production in off-channel areas then transition the gillnet fishery to these areas by 2017.

Sport fishing would be the priority in the mainstem lower Columbia.

Kitzhaber's move is a reaction to Measure 81 on Oregon's November ballot. The measure would prohibit gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon inland waters and the governor said his plan is a better alternative.

Washington is participating with Oregon in a working group to explore the proposal, but has made no commitments.

Robert Sudar, a fish marketer from Cowlitz County, said chinook caught in the Columbia are bigger, earlier, and bring a better price than those caught in the off-channel areas, such as Youngs Bay at Astoria.

A spring chinook caught in the Columbia averages $90 to the fisherman, while an off-channel fish averages $65, he said. A fall chinook from the main Columbia averages $38 compared to $25 in the off-channel areas.

"It's not just about the number of fish, it's also how much those fish are actually worth,'' Sudar said.

Participation in sports fishing is not growing, he said.

"It's mostly going to be more fish for the same fishery,'' Sudar said.

Gabe Miller, fishing and marine buyer for Far West Sports, said chinook fishing in the lower Columbia fuels huge increases in tackle sales in the Puget Sound area.

Far West Sports includes two large retail stores, Outdoor Emporium in Seattle and Sportco in Fife.

Each week spring chinook fishing is open in the lower Columbia, Far West sells an extra $75,000 to $125,000 in tackle and marine goods.

When the fall chinook fishery is open from Buoy 10 to Bonneville Dam in August and early September, it sparks $150,000 in sales per week, Miller added.

Irene Martin of Wahkiakum County said the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery is being reprogrammed to double its spring chinook production from 900,000 to 1.8 million young fish annually. Chief Joseph Hatchery in the upper Columbia will be producing 2.6 million young summer chinook in the coming years.

But if the gillnetters are in the off-channel areas, they will not benefit from the increase, Martin said.

She also noted that most fisheries have limits on the number of licenses sold, but not the guides on the Columbia or sport fishermen.

Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said fishing license sales soared in 2001 when spring chinook angling was open in April on the lower Columbia for the first time in decades.

"Columbia salmon fishing is a growth industry,'' she said.

Anglers pay $150 to $200 for a guided fishing trip, plus pay to travel, get hotel rooms and buy rain gear, Hamilton said.

Sportsmen average a spring chinook per nine trips. Shift the 6,000 spring chinook caught commercially in the main stem Columbia to sports fishing and that is more than 50,000 trips, each trip resulting in $50 to $100 a day in spending, she added.

"These fish are worth their weight in gold when put into the sport fleet,'' Hamilton said.

Gillnetter Les Clark of Chinook said gillnet gear is designed for the main stem, not off-channel areas.

"To talk about moving one user to a mudhole is kind of derogatory,'' he said.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, government relations chairman for the Coastal Conservation Association in Washington, said he worked three decades as a federal fisheries enforcement officer and has been first hand the damage Columbia River gillnets do.

In the summer chinook fishery in mid-June and early July, the bycatch of fish to be discarded is as high as the target species, he said.

With the warm water temperature, no limit on soak time and little monitoring by the states, there is no information on the survival of the fish the commercials release in summer, Wickersham added.

Kitzhaber's plan is good, he said.

It will reduce the commercial handle of steelhead and sturgeon, reduce the number of fish that drop out of the nets and are not accounted for and will reduce lost gillnet gear that keeps catching fish, said Wickersham.

Gillnetter Darren Crookshanks said the Kitzhaber plan has no funding and will not work.

"All it's going to be is a slow death to our industry,'' he said.

Steve Gray, a Pacific County commercial fishermen, said the Kitzhaber plan is simply a guise to reallocate more salmon to sportsmen.

"Greed is a terrible thing,'' Gray said. ""You're sitting here watching it today.''

Hamilton said societal values always are changing.

"We used to market-hunt ducks,'' she said.

A workgroup consisting of three commission members from both the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife panels will meet on Oct. 18 at the Airport Embassy Suites in Portland to continue discussions on restructuring the Columbia River fisheries.

The meeting is open to the public.