OLYMPIA — Sport fishermen from Southwest Washington repeatedly exhorted the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Saturday to implement fully in 2017 the most sweeping reforms in Columbia River salmon management in decades.
And their commercial foes, also from Southwest Washington, were equally strident that the plan adopted four years ago to eliminate gillnetting from the main river and to prioritize angling has been fraught with problems in the 2013-16 transition period.
The nine-member citizen panel will meet Jan. 13 and 14 in Vancouver to make its decision. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is going through similar deliberations, then the two states will need to reconcile any differences in their policies.
Reforms adopted by both states in early 2013 allocated more chinook salmon to sportsmen in the main Columbia and restricted gillnetting to off-channel sites like Youngs Bay near Astoria.
The reforms also called for commercial fishing that remained in the main Columbia to be done with live-capture methods — such as purse seines and beach seines — designed to harvest hatchery stocks and release wild fish.
“Sportsmen have paid, sacrificed and been promised these reforms,’’ said Gregg Robinson, vice president of the Columbia River chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. “The Oregon commission has lost its way, we’re counting on Washington.’’
“This is a good plan,’’ said Lyle Cabe of Vancouver, a member of the Southwest Washington chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. “It has the support of legislators and the governor — full implementation of the plan.’’
Gillnetting in the summer and fall has an unacceptable bycatch of Idaho-bound steelhead plus too much handling of sturgeon,’’ said Harry Barber of Washougal.
Gillnetting is “tiny, tiny industry,’’ said Bryan Irwin of White Salmon,
But commercial fishermen voiced a much different view.
Darren Crookshanks of Cowlitz County said he has 240 days of test fishing with seines as part of research for the Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife.
Seines cost four times as much to fish as gillnets, have a very high handle of steelhead, conflict on the river with sport fishermen and net damage from a tree root wad can take two days to repair, Crookshanks said.
Greg Johnson of Clark County, also a commercial fisherman, said there is room on the lower Columbia River for perhaps 25 seiners.
“What happens to the rest of the fleet?’’ he said.
Robert Sudar, a Longview commercial fish buyer, said by only fishing at the appropriate times and and areas, plus with the right size mesh, gillnets can be used to harvest hatchery salmon and largely avoid wild ones.
“There is no shortage of evidence that we fish selectively in the Columbia River,’’ Sudar said.
“What businessman may want to dump $100,000 in alternate gear if your policy is recreational priority on the main stem?’’ asked Kent Martin, a gillnetter from Skamokawa in Wahkiakum County.
Testing of beach and purse seines in the main Columbia in 2011 through 2013 found much higher mortality rates of released fish than anticipated four years ago.
Mortality rates in the mid-30 percent range were noted, which would make the seines a poor method to use to harvest hatchery salmon but release wild ones.
Dan Rawding of White Salmon, a Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientist, told the commission the 2011-13 studies had biases built in the design that overestimated release mortality from seines.
Rawding said release mortality is about 3 percent for steelhead and less than 10 percent for salmon.
Jim Scott, a special assistant to the director, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife said Rawding’s analysis will be taken to the Columbia River Technical Advisory Committee for review. The committee is made up of state, federal and tribal biologists.
“I’m always concerned about post-hoc analysis of a study,’’ said Kim Thorburn, a commission member from Spokane. “I have to question the validity of that.’’
Commission member Jay Kehne of Omak asked the Department of Fish and Wildlife to draft an option that allowed two more years of gillnetting in the fall between the Lewis River and Beacon Rock to permit the commercial fleet to catch fall chinook from the traditionally strong run headed for the Hanford Reach of central Washington.
Commission member Brad Smith of Bellingham acknowledged the complexity of managing Columbia River salmon.
“If there were easy answers, none of us would be here,’’ he said.