Massive makeover possible for lower Columbia sport, commercial fisheries

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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At times, change has come to Columbia River fisheries at a glacial pace.

But the restructuring of the lower Columbia commercial and sport fisheries under way now is more like an avalanche — wide, fast and no one quite knows what the landscape will look like when it’s finished.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber sent letters to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in mid-August directing the panel to boost hatchery salmon production in off-channel areas then transition the gillnet fishery to these areas.

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

Kitzhaber’s move was 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 developing a possible new fisheries regime, but is not bound by the Kitzhaber vision.

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said last week that “It felt somewhat like a shotgun wedding.’’

The Washington and Oregon commissions each appointed three members to serve as the Columbia River Fishery Management Workgroup. The workgroup will try to reach consensus on a huge overhaul of sport and commercial fishing in the lower Columbia — and have it done before the end of 2012.

The first meeting of the workgroup was Friday in Olympia. The final meeting will be Oct. 18 in Portland. That’s an amazingly short time line for an undertaking involving so many stakeholders.

The approach

Ed Bowles, fish division administrator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, laid out some management strategies for 2013 and beyond at Friday’s workgroup meeting.

For the next four years, gillnets would continue to be allowed in the lower Columbia while salmon production in off-channel areas is being enhanced. Here is what Bowles said, by salmon type, for the 2013-16 period:

Spring chinook — Increase spring chinook production by 1 million young fish annually in the off-channel areas. Sportsmen would get 70 percent of the allowable incidental take of listed upper Columbia spring chinook stocks.

It is the incidental-take distribution that largely drives the amount of sport fishing. The current sport share is 60 percent under base-case scenarios.

Summer chinook — Sportsmen would get 70 percent of the harvestable non-Indian surplus downstream of Priest Rapids Dam. Their current share is 50 percent.

For the commercials, Oregon would increase by 500,000 smolts the number of Rogue River-origin bright chinook released in off-channel areas. Those Rogue River fish are an excellent fall chinook and return early in August.

Sockeye — Sportsmen would get 70 percent of incidental-take compared to 50 percent now. If the federal fishery agency liberalizes the allowable take of sockeye, an increase of commercial harvest might occur.

Tule fall chinook — Tules are the darker skinned fall chinook. The sports share could be as high as 70 percent to allow for fishing at Buoy 10 and in the lower Columbia. The current share is about 50 percent.

Upriver bright fall chinook — The sport share could be 70 percent compared to the current approximate 50 percent. The commercials still would be allowed to net in the lower Columbia upstream of the Lewis River for upriver brights destined for upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Netting upstream of the Lewis allows the commercials to catch from the plentiful mid- and upper Columbia bright chinook stocks, yet minimizes their catch of the weak wild tule stocks headed for tributaries downstream of the Lewis.

Coho — The commercials would get additional 1 million coho released in off-channel areas. They would be assigned a sufficient share to catch coho and fall chinook in the off-channel areas, fall chinook upstream of the Lewis and seasons targeted on coho when enough are available.

These are just the highlights of the restructuring approach Bowles shared with the workgroup. There are details and caveats too complicated to explain fully here.

The comments

Lots of stakeholders in the Columbia River fisheries got to state their position on Friday. Here is a snapshot of just a few of the comments:

• Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the four treaty tribes are uncomfortable with the Kitzhaber plan. The tribes prefer to rebuild fish runs rather than see allocation fights between user groups.

“If we had fish, would this discussion be occurring?” Brigham asked.

The tribes do not believe in selective fishing, where only fin-clipped hatchery salmon and steelhead are kept and wild fish are released, she said.

Idaho has lots of selective fisheries yet its prime steelhead run is dwindling, Brigham said.

• Jim Martin of Oregon, a sport-fishing adviser to the workgroup, said the states should look at preserving the overall social and economic benefits of the commercial fishery, but not get locked into a species-by-species approach.

Rather than replacing lost commercial fishing for spring or summer chinook in the main Columbia with the same species in the off-channel waters, it might make more sense to make big boosts in the commercials’ opportunity for coho and fall chinook, Martin said.

• Robert Sudar, a fish buyer from Longview, said Columbia River salmon fill a niche in the markets, providing high-quality fish at times when other salmon are not available.

He specifically mentioned spring chinook in March, summer chinook in late June and July and coho in October. Filling those niches provides more value than having a huge number of salmon available at once, which they flood the market and drive down prices.

Sudar said he gets calls in January from customers wanting spring chinook.

“These fish have a certain aura,’’ he said. “The market appreciates it.’’

• Jim Wells, an Astoria gillnetter, said there is a big difference to the commercial fisherman between a coho at $1.25 per pound and a spring chinook at $6 to $7 per pound.

He also noted that there is no limit on the number of fishing guides, while entry into commercial fisheries is restricted.

“They are fish-killing machines,’’ he said.

• Steve Gray, a Pacific County commercial fisherman, pointed out that the only off-channel site in Washington is at Deep River, where the return of hatchery fish is poor.

“You might as well kill them at the hatchery,’’ Gray said.

• Bruce Buckmaster, a commercial fishing adviser, mentioned the dearth of good off-channel locations to rear more fish.

He said the seven or eight lower miles of the Willamette River would make a suitable off-channel site.

Buckmaster also mentioned moving the Buoy 10 sport fishery to upstream of the Astoria Bridge to allow the proposed increase in Rogue River bright fall chinook to make it into Youngs Bay, the largest of the off-channel locations.

• Hobe Kytr of Salmon For All, a commercial fishing group, said 25 off-channel sites were studied in the mid-1990s and only five fit the suitability criteria.

What’s next?

The next session of the Fishery Management Workgroup will be Oct. 18 at the Airport Embassy Suites in Portland. The meetings are open to the public.

Roy Elicker, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he envisions taking a rules package to the Oregon commission for adoption at the panel’s meeting in early December.

If it all gets done in that time frame, I’ll be amazed.

To restructure the Columbia River sport and commercial fisheries in just five months, never in my wildest dreams did I think that could happen.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation topics for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4555 or by email at al.thomas@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter at @col_outdoors.