Now equipped with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s support, long-awaited legislation to remove nontribal gillnets from the lower Columbia River may be a step closer to reality.
Senate Bill 5297, introduced to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks committee last week, would remove nontribal mainstem gillnet use in the Columbia River downstream of Bonneville Dam to off-channel locations beginning in 2025. Tribal gillnetting in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day reservoirs would be unaffected by the bill.
Gillnetting is a method of fishing that utilizes a long panel of nylon mesh anchored in a body of water. The netting is large enough for a fish’s head to swim through, but not its body. After lodging itself into a net’s hole, a fish cannot easily escape, as its gills get caught by the mesh.
The legislation followed the recent implementation of Washington’s voluntary buyback program, which spent $14.2 million on halting 85 percent of active state-issued Columbia River gillnet licenses. For two consecutive years, Inslee vetoed the program but opted to support the effort and is now advocating for the removal of gillnets.
The ban circles back to a decadeslong effort on behalf of conservationists and recreational fishers to minimize overharvesting.
Proponents of Senate Bill 5297 laud its focus to conserve salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River basin, 13 stocks of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, are listed as sponsors in Senate Bill 5297’s text.
“Gillnetting has been devastating on fish runs,” said Nello Picinich, Coastal Conservation Association Washington’s executive director.
When using a gillnet, it’s not guaranteed whether hatchery or wild fish will collect within the nylon mesh. Picinich said gillnets are not a user-friendly tool to ensure wild, endangered fish are protected, as a fish’s survivability drops once it’s caught in the net. Fish that aren’t marked with a fin clip — meaning it didn’t come from a hatchery — can’t be sold and are thrown back into the water.
But those who use gillnets disagree that removing the tool will advance conservation efforts.
“It’s amazing to me that our state would be so incredibly inconsiderate in proposing such a thing,” said longtime gillnetter Irene Martin of Skamokawa.
Martin argued that the legislation would jettison the Columbia River Interstate Compact, a bistate agreement between Washington and Oregon that manages commercial fishing on the lower Columbia River. Instead, she said, it targets a group that isn’t responsible for the loss of salmon and omits any adequate gillnet alternatives for fishers to use.
Washington anticipates using a state-sanctioned Emerging Commercial Fishery process to test the efficacy of alternative commercial gear, such as pound nets and beach seines. However, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lacks the capacity to monitor the Emerging Commercial Fishery process until the agency receives more funding, according to officials.
Martin said that Washington should allocate funding into salmon habitat restoration rather than funneling resources to its buyback program and nixing gillnets.
Jim Wells of Astoria, Ore., president of nonprofit Salmon for All and a gillnet fisher, said the Senate bill jeopardizes commercial fishing businesses and could disrupt revenue brought to Washington and Oregon through gillnetters’ distant-water fishing.
“It just puts those in lower Columbia communities in a tough position,” he said. “(The bill) eliminates us and passes to the recreational industry to kill the fish off.”
When Washington’s buyback program kicked off at the beginning of 2022, there were 240 issued licenses, which have now been limited to 70, said Kelly Cunningham, program lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Payments from the second phase of the program will be processed by the end of April.
The Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks committee criticized the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for the agency’s implementation of its buyback program, as it allowed gillnetters to abuse the program.
“One license holder sold four active licenses for approximately $350,000 then proceeded to buy an inactive or on-waiver license in order to continue the fishery,’’ Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, said.
It was completely legal, as there aren’t any regulations preventing gillnetters from selling their license to the state and turning to the open market to purchase one issued by Oregon.
“I do not blame any of these gillnetters for doing what they did,” Picinich said. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Other side of the river
There are 280 Columbia River gillnet license holders in Oregon, which co-manages lower Columbia River salmon, steelhead and sturgeon fisheries with Washington. And there are safeguards in place to ensure this number doesn’t drop.
Tom McBride, legislative director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a state Senate committee in Olympia last week that Oregon will sell more gillnet licenses if the number drops below 200.
But it will take both states’ involvement to make a ban on nontribal gillnetting work.
“Legislation is going to be the only way to solve this problem, but a state has to jump at this,” Picinich said. “One domino has to fall before the other one.”
And there are current attempts in Oregon to enact similar programs to Washington.
Bruce Polley, Coastal Conservation Association Oregon vice president, expects to see legislation in Oregon’s current legislative session proposing a buyback program for Oregon-issued Columbia River licenses.
“The reality is that gillnets will not be in the Columbia River much longer,” he said, referring to former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 2012 proposal to ban gillnets on the mainstem. “We’re moving toward an agreement that should have been held up already.”
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