About a year ago, The Columbian wisely urged the Fish and Wildlife commissions of Oregon and Washington to adopt sweeping salmon harvest reforms on the Columbia River (In Our View: Regulate Gillnets, 12/7/2012).
Coastal Conservation Association Washington concurred, and lodged immediate support for the four-year phase-in plan. The sweeping changes would relegate deadly, non-selective commercial gillnets to side channels ("SAFE" areas) where very few wild salmon and steelhead that are listed by the Endangered Species Act are snared. The new plan would also increase SAFE area commercial hatchery production and prioritize selective sport fishing on the main stem Columbia River.
With the promise of both improving conservation and optimizing the greater economic contributions of sport fishing to Washington's economy, you might expect wildlife managers to move decisively on the key priorities of the plan. Regrettably, the progress to date leaves many observers wondering if agency staff remember the spirit of the bold reforms in the first place: Ending decades of controversial main stem gillnetting, improving conservation and amplifying sport fishing, which currently generates $36 million in annual economic value.
Quickly and predictably, the gillnet lobbies in both states filed legal challenges against fishery managers to block these historic and vital reforms. CCA helped block these attacks, but delays have sapped vital momentum and focus.
With typical deference to commercial interests, managers have moved very slowly in laying out a plan for selective seine fisheries to replace non-selective gillnets, missing a first benchmark for a pilot seine fishery in 2013.
Seines, which have been thoroughly tested at great expense to taxpayers, have been proven more beneficial than gillnets because they kill fewer wild salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. Instead, managers moved quickly to use questionable "tanglenets" as a possible selective alternative. Unfortunately, tanglenets are simply small mesh gillnets that inflict similar damage, especially to smaller non-target species such as steelhead, wild sockeye and wild coho.
Managers have either forgotten or misinterpreted other priorities of the plan. For example, they moved quickly to create a SAFE area directly on the main stem in the Cathlamet Channel. A SAFE area is supposed to be an area outside the river's main flow. Multiple studies have shown that wild ESA-listed steelhead and salmon commonly use the Cathlamet Channel to migrate upstream and, as such, it is a poor location for non-selective gillnetting.
Lack of decisive action
Another imperative was to develop programs to reduce the mostly inactive gillnet fleet. Fish and Wildlife landing records show that only about a dozen Washington gillnetters (out of more than 150 who are licensed) land Columbia River fish valued atmore than $20,000 annually. Managers should pursue plans to cancel inactive permits, require landing minimums and use other methods to reduce permits. Even though this was to begin in 2013, we have not seen any effort on this important goal.
The power of the gillnet lobby to derail these landmark reforms should concern Washingtonians greatly. It is we who fund efforts to recover the wild salmon that are disproportionately killed in non-selective and lethal gillnets. Lack of decisive action and resolve on the part of managers should also concern us. The plan set clear, common-sense priorities for keeping non-selective gillnets out of the mainstem and for optimizing the economic value of fisheries on our Columbia River. The public continues to support these goals. Let's hope our agency managers will act boldly and lead the way on these priorities to earn a more positive report next year.
Nello Picinich is Executive Director of Coastal Conservation Association Washington, which is based in Vancouver and has 15 local chapters across the state, www.ccawashington.org.