Fish wheels — which capture fish much like mill wheels convert rivers into power — were outlawed on the Columbia River in the 1930s for a couple of compelling reasons. They represented an outdated system that, essentially, was too efficient in killing some species of fish whose populations were at risk.
The same holds true for gillnets in 2012. That’s why we are glad to see Saturday’s decision by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting in Olympia. By a 9-0 vote, the commission approved new sport and commercial fishing rules that will gradually ban gillnets over the next four years on the Columbia River, except in off-channel areas. One explanation about the need for a gillnet ban came from Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield and the Coastal Conservation Association, and his words were similar to the logic presented back in the 1930s. Wickersham correctly told the commission that gillnets are “antiquated gear from the 19th century that was used when there were lots of fish and few people.”
The Columbian on Dec. 7 editorially supported a gillnet ban — more correctly a zoning of the technique to side channels outside the Columbia River’s main stem. That same day the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission was scheduled to vote on the matter. The commission approved the measure, and Saturday’s decision in Olympia makes the bistate verdict official.
Except for one thing. As expected, commercial fishing interests have taken the matter to court, filing a petition asking the Oregon Court of Appeals to review the validity of the changes in that state. We hope this legal challenge fails. It’s time for the relatively few gillnetters — only about 200 along the Columbia — to accept a fate that has loomed inevitable during a dispute that has spanned several decades. Gillnets kill thousands of endangered salmon, snagging fish indiscriminately in nets that often run 1,500 feet long and droop 20 to 30 feet into a river. Some gillnets are 36,000 square feet, according to a Jan. 13 story by The Columbian’s Al Thomas.
Commercial fishing interests say the new policy will effectively wipe out their industry. But government agencies in both states have promised to spend millions increasing fish stocks in the side channels. Whether that satisfies the demands of the comparatively small industry remains to be seen, but we already know two facts: (1) Rampant over-trapping of fish with no regard to species is no way for a supposedly enlightened society to deal with endangered species; (2) Gillnetters have known for many years that their livelihood was likely destined for heavy regulation or zoning. That’s ample time to prepare for the kind of transitions that traditionally have been made by business interests, from buggy-whip makers of old to today’s landline telephone manufacturers.
As Thomas also reports, the new regulations are complex, but there are numerous built-in safeguards whereby state officials can frequently monitor how fair the new regulations are to recreational and commercial fishing interests.
This change is long overdue for fish, for people who fish and for consumers of fish who understand how extinction threatens some species.