Even with a chance at late returning coho salmon, few gillnet fishermen will be out with tangle nets on the Columbia River in the next two weeks.
The cost of testing the gear on the lower main stem comes out of fishermen's pockets and many are skeptical if their investment will mean access to more fish in future years.
Tangle nets are being tested although they are not new to the Columbia River. While the commercial fleet has adapted and tested commercial gear allowed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), they could be asked to spend more money on different nets if Gov. John Kitzhbaber's management proposal for the river becomes a reality. The proposal would ban gillnetting on the main stem of the Columbia.
Mike Wullger, a commercial fishermen for 37 years who was born in Astoria, went ahead with the pilot coho fishery. The tangle net he replaced his traditional gillnet with Tuesday was required to be 3.75-inch in mesh size to catch fish with their teeth instead of gills as they swim through and cost him $2,000. Although it's a pilot program, the net will not be reimbursed by ODFW and might not be allowed for catching coho in future fisheries. For drift gillnets in the late fall fishery, the minimum mesh size is 8 inches.
"These other (gears) take so much more to implement and it's very questionable whether its profitable for these guys," said Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries and a board member with Salmon For All.
"We've gone to pretty great extents to adapt," Wullger said, who also sits on the board for Salmon For All. "I think a lot of guys are waiting to see if it works."
Kitzhaber's proposal seeks to move gillnet fishing to select off-channel areas while enhancing them and reallocating salmon runs on the main stem to sports fishermen. The plan was formulated after Measure 81 was placed on the statewide election ballot and would have removed gillnets from the river completely. The measure failed with a 66 percent majority.
Conservation and sports fishing groups who pushed for Measure 81 say that gillnets negatively affect Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed stocks of salmon and steelhead and are not selective enough for harvesting fish. The groups also tout significant economic impacts to the lower Columbia region during the popular Buoy 10 season and other recreational fisheries.
Gillnetters maintained through the decision process that gillnets are selective. Fick said that when all is said and done this year, gillnetters will likely have had less of an impact on protected listed stocks. According to ODFW data from landings, commercial fishermen have caught more than 70,000 chinook salmon in the summer and late fall seasons. Fick said that by the end of the year he and other commercial fishermen expect to have only a 30 percent impact on ESA-listed stocks compared to 70 percent by sports fishermen.
"You tell me who's more selective," Wullger said.
Under Kitzhaber's proposed plan for lower Columbia River management reform, seine nets could soon be set for testing as an alternative. Senate Bill 830, which passed this year in the Oregon Legislature, paved the way for seine nets to be used again after being illegal for more than 60 years.
A lawsuit is still under way in the Oregon Court of Appeals to review the policy changes. But if seines are implemented, gillnetters say the fishing method will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in a bigger boat, pay a crew and purchase the net.
"They talk about this seining and other selective gears and it's just ridiculous expecting guys to go out and spend whatever it might cost when they have their equipment (traditional gillnets) right there," Wullger said.
The main reason Wullger said he has attempted to adapt and join the pilot tangle net fishery is because he can still fish alone and use original equipment other than the new net.
"With this boat I can make some money," he said.
"It's expensive to put this gear up," said Fick. "If you invest in it and you don't know if they'll let you fish that way, that's one of the concerns."
Only 50 boats or one-third of the commercial fleet are likely to participate in the tangle net fishery, Fick said.
For 2013, ODFW forecasts 433,600 coho adults will enter the Columbia River mouth, which includes 288,500 early stock and 145,100 late stock. Last year's return was 135,300 coho.
Gillnetters were able to use a slightly larger mesh size for a spring chinook fishery, but the nets haven't been allowed for the pilot coho fishery.
"The reason there's not a lot of guys doing it is there's just a lot of skepticism," Wullger said. Building the net takes time and there's other factors as well, such as sea lions and seals ripping up the comparatively lighter tangle net.
"They rip through it like butter because it's so light," Wullger said.
ODFW requires that the net only remain in the water for a half hour compared to sometimes two hours with traditional gillnets.
"We'll see if this works," said Wullger. "If we can get it to work it will be another tool that we'll have to harvest some of these coho, which we really don't have access to now because with traditional nets we only get one or two openings and then we're done."
Wullger will have an observer to monitor his catch, which is the first of eight days of 12-hour fishing periods in lower Columbia River zones. Additional target coho periods could occur afterwards, according to ODFW.
Born and raised near Youngs River, Wullger started fishing when he was 13 and went up to Alaska to fish when he was 15 years old. "They know that me and these other guys aren't going to go invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in a seine operation when they don't guarantee any more fish," he said. "We're not smart people, but we're not dumb."
Salmon For All estimates that $2.7 million of direct revenue has gone to gillnetters this year, with nearly $10 million in indirect revenue being generated for Clatsop County and the region.
"That was a good shot of money into these lower river communities," Wullger said.