Washington adopts Columbia River salmon fishing overhaul

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter



OLYMPIA — The most sweeping overhaul of lower Columbia River sport and commercial fishing rules in 80 years was adopted Saturday when the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved shifting gillnets into off-channel areas.

The commission voted 9-0 to make sport fishing the priority in the main river and to transition gillnets during the next four years into spots like Youngs Bay at Astoria and Deep River in Wahkiakum County.

Miranda Wecker of Naselle, commission chairman, called the complicated, detail-laden plan “a series of gradual steps but philosophically as a whole a revamping of the way our state manages its fisheries. I see it as a bold but practical way that shows political courage and leadership.”

The fisheries changes are the biggest since fish wheels were outlawed in the mid-1930s.

Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the package in early December. Commercial fishing interests last week asked the Oregon Court of Appeals to invalidate the Oregon commission’s action.

The revamping was jump-started when sport-fishing and conservation interests got Measure 81 on the November 2012 ballot in Oregon. The measure would have outlawed gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon waters.

In August, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber advanced a compromise to continue use of gillnets, but only in off-channel areas, plus prioritizing sport fishing.

The plan now adopted by the two state commissions carries a great deal of uncertainty and depends on yet-to-be-secured financing.

It includes stocking more salmon in the off-channel areas and limiting gillnets to those areas. It also involves developing alternative methods — such as beach seines and purse seines — for use in commercial fisheries at times and locations in the lower Columbia.

In Oregon, seines are illegal and will require authorizing legislation.

The new framework boosts the sport share of spring chinook from 60 percent in the past few years to 65 percent in 2013 and eventually 80 percent by 2017.

Summer chinook sharing goes from 50 percent sport in the lower Columbia to 60 percent in 2013 and 2014 and 70 percent in 2015 and 2016. Washington and Oregon will determine later the summer chinook allocation in 2017 and beyond.

Kitzhaber has proposed $5.2 million his budget toward fisheries enhancements. Jim Scott, assistant director for fisheries of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Washington will need to find about $500,000 to build additional net pens to rear more off-channel fish.

Wecker said that while Washington spends less than 1 percent of the state budget on all natural resource management, Kitzhaber is pledging substantial new money for fisheries.

“I see this plan as a bargain for our state,” she said.

Most of the testimony on Saturday was from sportsmen in favor of the overhaul.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, government relations chair of the Coastal Conservation Association, showed the commission a small piece of 7 1/2-inch mesh gillnet, demonstrating that the opening in the net when unstretched is just 31/2 inches.

An 8-inch-mesh gillnet, used substantially in the lower Columbia, has a 4-inch opening unstretched, he said.

An 8-inch-mesh net typically is 1,500 feet long, hangs down 20 to 30 feet and is about 36,000 square feet with 150 to 200 of the nets in the Columbia during commercial seasons, he added.

“This is antiquated gear from the 19th century that was used when there were lots of fish and few people,” Wickersham told the commission.

Bruce Crookshanks, a Washington gillnetter, pointed out to the commission two anti-commercial fishing initiatives have failed in the state and that they do not have the authority to put the commercials out of business.

“It is everyone’s resource, not just the sportsmen’s” said Crookshanks.

Steve Gray, a commercial fisherman from Pacific County, pointed out that there have been hundreds of comments from the commercials and none support the overhaul.

Wecker said she realizes the gillnetters see the plan as the demise of their industry and that benefits for sportsmen are easier to obtain than those for the commercials, which are further in the future and require many actions coming together.

The plan requires annual reviews and is designed so the states can make changes quickly if either side is getting short-changed, she noted.

She called the changes a transition toward a “modernized main stem commercial fishery.”

“They (the commercials) do not believe the commitment is there,” Wecker said. “But I’ll say they do not know what is in the future. The future is what you make of it.”