The Joint State Columbia River Salmon Policy Review Committee met for the first time on Jan. 17 at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife headquarters in Salem, Ore. The six-member task force is charged with revising the Columbia River policy C-3620.
The policy was implemented in an effort to remove non-tribal gill nets used by the commercial fishing fleets of both states from the mainstem Columbia River after an exhaustive years-long process. It was sought by sport anglers and conservationists who have long objected to commercial fishing on salmon and steelhead stocks that are federally listed as endangered.
The three delegates to the workgroup from Washington are commissioners David Graybill, Bob Kehoe and Don McIsaac. Holly Akenson, Bruce Buckmaster, and Bob Weber are the Oregon commissioners on the committee.
Oregon and Washington have operated under the Columbia River Reform Plan championed by former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber since 2013. The reforms ranged from requirements that anglers use barbless hooks to a phase-out of commercial gill nets in the main channel of the Columbia River.
The committee will also discuss ways to reach concurrency between the rules of each state, and the enforcement problems associated with that. Currently Oregon allows some limited gill netting in the Columbia, but Washington does not.
While the performance review noted progress on some issues, expectations have not been met in a variety of other key areas.
Many commercial fishermen argue that the policy has been a failure.
“Did the policy do what it was supposed to do?” asked Robert Sudar, a fish buyer in Longview. “A lot of things that were supposed to happen did not happen. It has not been a success in any regard.”
However, sport anglers complain that the states have not pursued parts of the policy in good faith, and they point to weak efforts put into the buy-back program as one area where the policy was not enacted as planned.
When asked, Washington commissioner Don McIsaac had to agree that parts of the policy, including the provisions for alternative gears and a buyback program, were not fully implemented.
“The truth of the matter is that it did not happen,” said McIsaac, although he said some experiments with alternate fishing gears did show promise.
“There was a pound net at Cathlamet that has shown some success, but can a whole bunch of pound nets replace gill nets? There is not enough room in the Columbia River for a whole bunch of those.”
Still, he thinks more effort in regards to alternative gears and a buy-back might prove worthwhile.
“We have to try to do a better job of that in the next five years,” he said.
McIsaac also feels that the states must support both groups.
“We have to maintain the economic well-being of both commercial and sport fishermen,” he added.
Sudar is unimpressed by talk of a buy-back.
“The intent is to reduce the fleet, paid for by the public,” he said. “Why should the public have to do that?”
During the meeting Oregon commissioner Bruce Buckmaster and Holly Akenson both advocated for returning gill net fisheries to the mainstem Columbia River in the spring and summer.
Washington commissioner David Graybill pushed back, suggesting that the review committee should not be so swift to radically alter the heavily-negotiated pact.
Some of those in attendance expressed concern that a few of the commissioners are trying to rush these changes to the policy through before they are replaced with new commissioners in the near future.
Both Akenson and Buckmaster’s terms will be completed this June.
“This is an attempt to ram jam everyone before the new commissioners come on board,” said Liz Hamilton, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
Salmon returns dwindling
Sport fishermen and conservationists question the logic of allowing more nets in the river when the runs are so depressed that all salmon and steelhead fishing in the Columbia River was closed in fall of 2018, an unprecedented event.
Currently, salmon and steelhead runs are about 50 percent of the recent 10-year average.
Sport anglers chaff at what they see as an attempt to usurp a hard-fought for policy.
“It’s just unacceptable,” said Buzz Ramsey of Yakima Bait and a member of the NSIA. “This after hatchery plants were taken from sport guys in the upper river to put into SAFE areas for the commercials?”
Ramsey said it was one of many sacrifices sport anglers had made to the commercial fleet.
Sport concessions included the use of barbless hooks, and the sport fishing exclusion zone at the mouth of Young’s Bay, among others. Both of these measures are slated for discussion, and may possibly be reversed.
The task force will continue to discuss options for altering the policy through this spring.
Hamilton bemoans the fact that the Columbia commercial in-river fishery is the last of its kind in the lower 48 states.
“Why this region still struggles to find a way to harvest fish in a way that is more ecologically responsible, and manage fisheries in a way that is better for the economy as well, while the rest of the entire U.S. has figured it out is hard for me to understand,” said Hamilton.
Oregon Columbia River fishing guide Bob Rees of the Northwest Steelheaders expressed disgust at what has been happening.
“It is, again, this commission just absolutely slapping sport anglers in the face,” said Rees. “We are the largest constituency, we contribute the most dollars to the agency, and we are given the short end of the stick all over again.”
Rees, Hamilton, and others remind sport fishermen to contact their legislatures and the governor’s offices and ask them to keep the policy intact.
A partial list of possible changes being discussed by bi-state group:
• Resume gill netting in the Columbia in spring and summer.
• Keep or change the current 80/20 (percent) sport/commercial allocation to a 70/30 allocation, or abundance-based allocation.
• Rescind or keep barbless hook requirement.
• Rescind or keep the Young’s Bay exclusion zone.
• 80/20 sport/commercial allocation or 50/50 allocation, or abundance-based allowable harvest below Priest Rapids Dam.