At the start of the meeting, sportsmen and gillnetters jammed into the ballroom of the Portland airport hotel, there to watch the revamping of fishing on the lower Columbia River. Hotel staff scrambled to find additional chairs.
And eight hours later, well, perhaps two dozen spectators remained.
Nobody said last week’s meeting of the Columbia River Fisheries Management Reform Workgroup would be thrilling to watch. The next session, on Nov. 15 in Astoria, likely will be equally dry.
But, incrementally, Washington and Oregon are overhauling the structure of commercial fishing in the lower Columbia, the making biggest change in decades.
This is all part of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plan to move the gillnetters off the main stem lower Columbia into off-channel areas, which is Kitzhaber’s compromise plan so Oregon voters do not approve Measure 81 to prohibit gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon inland waters.
The Kitzhaber proposal is premised on the idea that there are additional off-channel locations in the lower Columbia River to rear more salmon and catch them with gillnets.
Currently there are three Oregon off-channel spots — Youngs Bay, Tongue Point and Blind Slough, all near Astoria — and one in Washington at Deep River.
There are details still to be determined, but this is a quick-and-dirty summary of what looks like is coming:
Spring chinook — Transition the gillnetters from the main lower Columbia to the off-channel areas by 2017. The sport share now at 60 percent, would increase to 70 percent through 2016 and to 80 percent beginning in 2017.
Washington’s three fish and wildlife commissioners on the work group want to limit the gillnetters exclusively to tangle nets in the main river starting next spring, although gillnets would be allowed off-channel.
Summer chinook — The 50-50 sharing between the commercials and sports would change to 70 percent sport and 30 percent commercial in 2013 and 80-20 in 2015. Washington’s plan ends commercial catch of summer chinook beginning in 2017.
Fall chinook — This is much more complicated, but would change the sport-commercial shares of tules from about 50-50 to as much as 70 percent sport in 2013-16 and as much as 80 percent sport in 2017.
Washington’s three commissioners want pilot beach seine and purse seine fisheries next fall and gillnets phased out of the main stem by 2016.
The tentative plan focuses commercial fishing for upriver bright fall chinook between the mouth of the Lewis River and Beacon Rock using traditional large-mesh gillnets.
Coho — Commercial fishing would be allowed with gillnets plus pilot tangle nets, purse seines and beach seines through 2015 under the Washington plan. Gillnets would be eliminated beginning in 2016.
Sturgeon — The allocation of 80 percent sport would not change. Washington’s representatives to the workgroup want to eliminate sturgeon retention beginning in 2013 unless the population estimate for 2012 — due out in November — shows an increase.
Again, this is a “short’’ version of the restructuring proposal and there are several provisos and caveats not detailed here. Also not listed are the various increases in chinook and coho proposed for the off-channel areas.
There was no shortage of comments at an eight-hour meeting. In short, the commercials don’t like the change and sportsmen mostly do. Here are a few of comments:
Robert Sudar, a fish buyer from Longview, said it is unfathomable to him that the states would take the gillnetters off the main stem for spring chinook. The commercial share already is small, caught in a couple of openers and would only extend sport fishing for two or three days, he said.
“You’re giving us up for two or three days in the sport fishery,’’ Sudar said.
Gary Douvia, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission member, explained the rationale for phasing the gillnetters off summer chinook salmon.
The netters get about 3,200 summer chinook in two one-day openers in June. When their allocation drops from 50 percent to 20 percent, the net fleet will be down to fishing only about four hours.
There’s a bycatch issue with steelhead and sockeye in the river in June, with warm water temperatures not conducive to releasing fish, he added.
Jim Wells of Salmon For All. a commercial group, pointed out that new Chief Joseph Hatchery in the upper Columbia River is scheduled to start producing summer chinook soon.
Summer chinook returns should double from around 80,000 to 160,000 with the new hatchery, yet all that benefit will be handed solely to sportsmen, Wells said.
Wells also said when commercial fishermen agreed a few years ago to test alternative fishing methods such as purse seines and beach seines the methods were supposed to be in addition to gillnets, not in place of them.
“Now a deal is not a deal,’’ he said.
Greg Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Vancouver, said it would cost about $5,000 to buy a net suitable for fishing in the off-channel areas and $15,000 for a beach seine.
The makeover of commercial fishing is a double whammy of increased equipment costs and less profitable opportunity, he said.
“You’re putting the hurt on pretty good,’’ Johnson said.
Jim Martin of Pure Fishing, a sport-fishing representative, said moving young spring chinook from the Willamette River to the off-channel areas will hurt the Willamette fishery.
Still, moving the commercials to the off-channel areas can boost lower Columbia spring chinook sport-fishing trips from almost 150,000 annually to almost 200,000 annually, he said.
Economic losses to the commercials of spring chinook and summer chinook can be compensated with fall chinook and, especially, with coho, he said.
Late coho, which enter the lower Columbia in October, can be boosted and large numbers made available for commercial harvest.
Bruce Buckmaster, a commercial fishing representative from Astoria, said the explosion of guides on the Columbia River has increased the handle of sturgeon.
He suggested five years of no targeted fishing on sturgeon.
Russell Bassett of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders said sportsmen already have compromised with the commercials by joining the Kitzhaber compromise and no longer campaigning for Measure 81.
Darren Crookshanks, president of the Columbia River Fisheries Protective Union, a commercial group, suggested the guide fleet have on-board state monitors, a quick-reporting rule for their catch and that they pay a landing tax.
“I’d like to thank you for putting me out of business,’’ he added.
Another meeting of the Columbia River Fisheries Management Reform Workgroup is planned Nov. 15 in the Astoria area. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet Nov. 9 in Salem with the Columbia River fisheries the only topic.
Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet Nov. 8-9 in Olympia. A briefing and public hearing on the Columbia River fisheries are on the agenda for 2 p.m. Nov. 8.
Both commissions tentatively are scheduled to make their final decisions in December.
Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor topics for The Columbian. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 360-735-4555. He can be followed on Twitter at @col_outdoors.