Gillnetters sue over Columbia fisheries reform plan

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Commercial fishermen have turned to the Oregon Court of Appeals to challenge a recent change in the state’s gillnet fishing rules.

In addition to a petition that asks the Oregon court to review the validity of the changes, a lawyer for the fishermen sent a letter to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, asking it to push back a gillnet rule change decision expected Saturday.

Washington to discuss topic on Saturday

OLYMPIA — Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will discuss on Saturday whether to adopt a major revamping of salmon and sturgeon fishing policies for the lower Columbia River, despite the lawsuit filed by commercial interests.

The nine-member panel will meet beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the Columbia Room of the state Legislative Building, 416 Sid Snyder Ave. N.W.

Consideration of the Columbia River fisheries overhaul is on the agenda for 9 a.m. Public testimony will be accepted.

Tami Lininger, commission executive assistant, said the commission will have an executive (closed) session on Friday to discuss the Oregon litigation, but the fisheries discussion will stay on the Saturday agenda.

On Dec. 7, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to ban the use of gillnets to catch fish on the main stem of the lower Columbia River, relegating the primary commercial-fishing tool to side channels.

Washington’s commission is expected to decide Saturday in Olympia on similar rules. That could eliminate the centuries-old practice from both sides of the river.

The gillnet ban was pushed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who hoped to mediate a long-standing conflict between commercial and recreational fishermen while moving to new methods of commercial fishing.

Recreational fishermen say gillnets are harmful to the recovery of endangered salmon.

The proposal has infuriated commercial fishermen, who say it’ll be impossible for them to earn a living by fishing only in the limited areas where they’ll be allowed to use gillnets.

Friday’s petition was filed against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on behalf of Steve Fick and his company, Fishhawk Fisheries, as well as Jim Wells, a commercial gillnet fisherman and president of Salmon For All.

Oregon for generations has allowed gillnet fishing on the Columbia, the petition said, and it has given the consuming public a fair share of the salmon and sturgeon caught in the river.

The new rules “effectively abolish that tradition and cause irreparable economic devastation for these commercial fisheries and the coastal communities dependent on them,” the petition said.

Gillnets are the primary method of commercial fishing on the Columbia. They snag fish by the gills, preventing them from breaking free.

Critics say the nets kill thousands of endangered salmon.

Fick said that the new rules would irreparably harm his business, which processes salmon.

“It would be a significant economic blow to my business to not have access to the Columbia River salmon,” he told the Astorian.

Kitzhaber’s proposal was advanced after a private organization gathered signatures to ban gillnets altogether on the Oregon side of the river.

The Oregon governor has said he’s committed to improving economic benefits for commercial and recreational fishermen. He viewed the ban as part of a larger strategy that includes increasing the availability of hatchery salmon returning to side channels and legalizing alternative gear for commercial fishing.

Commercial gillnet fishermen attended workgroup meetings last fall and spoke at public comment periods, arguing there was not enough room to fish for hatchery salmon in off-channel sites. They also questioned where the money would come from for ramping up salmon production at the sites.

Kitzhaber released a letter in December saying he would assign $5.2 million from his budget to the new management objectives. The commercial fishermen said that wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of such changes.

About 200 gillnetters are active on the Columbia, many of them from families that have been commercially fishing for generations.

The newspaper said the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission received the fishermen’s letter on Friday and it was distributed to the nine commissioners for consideration.

Tribal fisheries are not affected by the new Oregon rules.