SALEM, Ore. — Gov. John Kitzhaber's effort to move commercial gillnet fishers off the Columbia River took a big step forward in the final hours of Oregon's legislative session this week.
Recreational fishers will find higher prices for licenses to catch salmon and steelhead, along with an exclusion zone at a popular fishing spot near Astoria.
Lawmakers approved a surcharge of up to $9.75 per year to raise money for fisheries enhancement. They also authorized an exclusion zone at the mouth of Youngs Bay, a popular fishing spot near Astoria.
The measure lifts a decades-old ban on seine nets for commercial fishing and allocates $500,000 to mitigate the economic impacts of ending gillnet fishing on the main stem of the Columbia beginning in 2017. It was welcomed by sport-fishing interests and denounced by commercial gillnetters, who have ardently opposed Kitzhaber's effort to get them off the main stem.
"I think it really is a huge step into this century for fishery management," said Liz Hamilton, director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
At Kitzhaber's request, the fish and wildlife commissions in Oregon and Washington voted earlier this year to restrict gillnets to side channels like Youngs Bay and release more hatchery fish in those areas to boost the number of salmon returning.
The measure was approved Sunday in the Senate and Monday in the House, and Kitzhaber is expected to sign it. It directs the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to adopt an exclusion zone at the mouth of Youngs Bay by Feb. 1, 2014. The boundaries are undefined, and the fight over where to set them is likely to be yet another source of tension between the long-feuding commercial and recreational fishers.
The entrance to Youngs Bay is a popular August recreational fishing spot inside the area known as Buoy 10. The exclusion zone will be reviewed every three years and could be eliminated.
Hamilton said she thinks the exclusion zone will "ultimately prove unnecessary" because fisheries managers will find other ways to ensure fish reach the gillnetters.
Gillnetters requested the exclusion zone to prevent sport fishers from catching fish before they can reach the gillnetters in Youngs Bay. Recreational fishers said they're concerned about safety if hundreds of boats go farther from port or try to squeeze into tighter fishing areas.
Gillnets are the primary tool that about 200 commercial fishers use to catch salmon on the Columbia. They snag fish by the gills, preventing them from breaking free. Critics say they're cruel to fish and indiscriminately catch endangered fish. Gillnetters say they can be selective by carefully choosing the time, location and net size.
The Legislature voted to legalize seine nets, which are being tested in Washington state. A seine net would allow a fisher to sort and release protected fish, potentially with less harm.
But gillnetters say there aren't enough fish to make seine operations commercially viable for more than a handful of fishers, and the up-front investment would be immense.