Coho tangle-net fishing coming to lower Columbia

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The next step in the reform of lower Columbia River salmon fishing begins Wednesday when a commercial tangle-net season to catch hatchery-origin coho begins between Woodland and the coast.

The Columbia River Compact on Thursday approved eight days of fishing downstream of Warrior Rock on Sauvie Island with 3.75-inch-mesh nets and recovery boxes. The nets can not be in the water longer than 30 minutes at a time.

"It's an opportunity to look at bringing back commercial opportunity in October for us on late hatchery coho,'' said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "That opportunity in recent years with Endangered Species Act listings has been reduced significantly.''

Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said about 20,000 hatchery coho have been allocated for this pilot fishery. Fewer than 50 vessels are expected to fish.

"Estimating actual catch is difficult since there is no historical data to draw on.'' Ehlke said. There was limited test fishing from 2009 to 2011.

Norman said ESA limitations to protect wild coho would be reached with a commercial catch of only a few thousand if the fishing isn't limited to hatchery coho.

Tangle nets are smaller mesh nets than used traditionally. They are intended to catch fish by tangling in the teeth or jaw, rather than in the fragile gills. Wild fish can be placed in the recovery boxes, then released.

Ehlke said 64 percent of the coho are expected to be hatchery origin. State biologists estimate 13.6 percent of the released salmon and steelhead will die. The steelhead handle is estimated at fewer than 300 fish.

The eight days will be 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct. 2 and 3, Oct. 7 through 10 and Oct. 14 and 15.

Traditionally, 6-inch-mesh nets are used in the lower Columbia for coho and both hatchery and wild fish are kept. Norman said a traditional coho fishery is anticipated in the second half of October if fish are available.

Kent Martin, a Wahkiakum County commercial fisherman, was lukewarm about the new tangle-net coho fishery. He said he's invested about $2,200 in additional gear.

"This isn't something we particularly wanted to happen,'' Martin said.

The four Columbia River treaty tribes were clear on Thursday that they opposed the tangle-net coho fishery.

Wilbur Slockish, a Yakama member representing the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, noted that early coho returns upstream of Bonneville Dam have been far below forecasts.

Late coho headed to the Klickitat River are important to the tribes, he said.

Slockish said the overall non-Indian harvest of coho might exceed allowances.

Ehlke said the guideline is to allow at least 50 percent of the coho that originate upstream of Bonneville to pass the dam. Even with the recommended fishing, 68 percent of the upriver coho are projected to pass Bonneville, she added.

Slockish also took issue with the 13.6 percent estimated of handling mortality.

"This rate appears to be little more than a guess,'' he said.

Spring tangle-net fishing releases chinook into 40 to 50 degree temperatures in the Columbia River while the stream was 69 degrees at Bonneville on Wednesday, Slockish said. Yet the mortality rate is 14.7 percent in the spring.

Mark Manion, harvest manager for the Warm Springs tribe, also questioned the 13.6 percent rate.

John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said a survival study of handled coho will begin Monday.

Chinook season — Washington and Oregon also adopted seven nights of gillnetting between Warrior Rock and Beacon Rock with 8-inch-minimum mesh to target on fall chinook.

The netters will fish from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from Oct 1 through 16. They are projected to catch 7,500 chinook and 1,100 coho.