Phase-out of gillnetting can continue during legal challenge

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Recently adopted rules that would phase out gillnet use on the lower Columbia River will now go into effect.

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that they would not impose a stay on enforcement of the rules while they review a lawsuit against the policy changes.

Steve Fick and Jim Wells filed a petition with the court in July after the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the rules in June.

The appellate court found that petitioners did not show commercial interests would be harmed during the judicial review.

Fick expressed disappointment about the decision, but said they would continue the challenge and is hopeful.

"It's just erroneous that somehow we are going to wait several years to be assured that the economics are going to be there," said Fick.

The rule changes would phase out commercial non-tribal gillnet use on the main stem of the river over a four year period. By 2017, the rules call for gillnets to only be used in off-channel areas. New gear types will be tested in the meantime and would potentially be allowed instead of gillnets. The allocation of chinook salmon would shift more dramatically toward the recreational fishery as well.

The changes were proposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber after Measure 81 appeared on the November election ballot calling for an outright ban of gillnets on the river. The measure was defeated by a 66 percent majority. Kitzhaber proposed the changes, describing them as a compromise after years of disputes between user groups.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted similar rules in January and a legal challenge to those rules was denied.

The first petition by Fick and Wells came early this year after Oregon policymakers adopted the rules in December. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department reviewed the policy before returning with similar recommendations for the commission.

Senate Bill 830 was passed by state legislators in July. The bill backs the policy changes with funding for enhancing off-channel hatchery sites.

An endorsement fee of $9.75 paid for by recreational fishermen on the Columbia River will also go into effect to help pay for changes. The use of barbless hooks have also been required of recreational fishermen. The bill paved the way for seine nets and other alternative gear to be tested on the river.

During development of the rule changes, recreational fishermen and conservation groups argued that gillnets have been detrimental to endangered salmon and steelhead in the river. They also argued that the economic benefit from recreational fishermen surpassed that of commercial gillnetters.

Gillnetters responded that the fishing gear is a selective tool and can be protective of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. They said alternative gear would be too expensive to implement and that off-channel areas like Youngs Bay would be too crowded for the entire commercial fleet to fish from.

"It's just a poor plan that wasn't thought out and we need to change it," said Fick. "It is not going to recover any more fish. It is simply going to allow sportsfishermen to kill more fish."

Liz Hamilton, executive director of Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the new rules would better protect wild fish stocks in the Columbia River. She also hailed the decision for what it will mean for greater allocation for recreational fishermen.

"Today's ruling made us hopeful that we will see significant changes to allocation of salmon for recreational anglers," said Hamilton in a statement Tuesday.

But Fick said that the commercial fishery has managed to be more selective than sportsfishermen, particularly with the fall commercial fishery recently.