The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to approve phasing out commercial gill nets on the lower Columbia River, except in a few spots. While winning praise from sport fishermen, the plan is strongly opposed by gill-netters.
CATHLAMET, Wahkiakum County — The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to vote Saturday on phasing out the use of commercial gill nets on the lower Columbia River, except in a few bays and side channels.
The plan would offer sports anglers more time to fish for the prized Columbia River salmon and also would give commercial fishermen new opportunities on the main channel to use more selective seine gear to catch hatchery-raised salmon.
But many commercial fishermen are hostile.
They believe there won’t be enough room — or enough fish — in the side channels to sustain their fleet. They are also skeptical the seine harvests will offer a profitable alternative.
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At a meeting earlier this month in Cathlamet, commission chairwoman Miranda Wecker faced a table of angry gill-netters who predicted the plan would force many out of Columbia River fisheries that have been pursued by their fleets since the 1850s.
“I don’t understand what the rush is to ruin the industry,” said Steve Gray, a gill-netter from Seaview, Pacific County. “When you make that decision, that’s what you are doing.”
Wecker conceded that portions of the plan may be impracticable and may need to be modified. But she served notice the commissioners are ready to move ahead.
“I have no sense from anyone that there is a movement afoot to do anything other than adapt this policy,” Wecker said.
The plan, which has been approved by Oregon, would guide harvest on the lower portion of the Columbia. It would phase out commercial gill nets on the main stem by the end of 2017.
Biologists say wild salmon have a much lower chance of survival after being released from a gill net, which grabs fish by the gill or fin, than if they are caught in a purse seine. The plan does not apply to tribal fishermen. Under treaty rights, they are entitled to half the salmon available for harvest each year.
In areas upstream from Bonneville Dam, tribal fishermen may lay out more than 600 gill nets during the peak spring season.
Tribal officials say they also have rights to set gill nets in downstream areas now used by the commercial fleet, but they have opted not to exercise that right, according to Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The battle over fish allocations plays out amid a multibillion-dollar effort, financed by taxpayers and utility ratepayers, to restore threatened and endangered wild-salmon runs and fund hatcheries that provide the bulk of salmon caught by all fishermen.
Under the new plan, sport anglers will get more opportunities to fish for salmon as gill-netters are pushed off the main stem of the river.
This shift reflects the clout of sport fishermen.
In 2012, they purchased 198,000 tags authorizing them to catch Columbia River salmon or steelhead. For lodging, guides, meals and other expenses, sport fishermen spend money that ripples through river communities.
In a December hearing in Olympia, sport fishermen packed a conference room to testify in favor of the new plan.
“Citizens of Washington and Oregon have been raising concerns about the use of gill nets in the Columbia River for decades,” testified Stan Brogdon, president of the Washington chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association.
“The time for the gill nets in the Columbia River has long since passed.”
Industry in flux
Commercial fishermen have mounted a legal challenge to the Oregon plan and could launch a lawsuit in Washington.
Commercial fisherman hold more than 400 Columbia River salmon permits, although many are not actively fished. They use gill nets, as well as tangle nets that reduce the number of wild salmon killed during the harvest.
According to a plan model, the current gill-net harvests are worth more than $3.6 million to fishermen. These harvests provide a boost to rural economies, as well as some premium fish to restaurants and consumers. At least on paper, the commercial fishermen’s fortunes would improve under the plan, with their total revenue climbing to more than $4.3 million by 2018.
The plan calls for the commercial fleet to catch more fish in side channels, where hatchery runs would be increased. There are currently four such channels, with the three most productive of them on the Oregon side.
If Washington fishermen could find room to drop nets in these areas, they could continue to gillnet past 2017.
Another key part of the plan is the launch of seine-net harvests on the main part of the Columbia to catch hatchery-raised chinook and coho.
During the past three years, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife contracted with fishermen who used seines strung out from shore or dropped from boats to corral fish in circular nets, where fish can be sorted and released.
Though seine-mortality rates have not been released, biologists say those rates are much lower than those of gill nets. “The fall chinook, they get really calm, and as soon as you pass them over the cork and they know they are free, they just shoot off,” said Josua Holowatz, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
Some of the fishermen who worked under these contracts were impressed with the potential for the seine nets.
“It was very successful,” said Jeff Povelite, a Southwest Washington fisherman who spent 30 days in 2011 putting purse-seine nets in the Columbia.
Povelite says too many Columbia River gill-netters are stuck in the past and unwilling to change. But he says seiners, who use crews and a power skiff, have higher operating costs and need to catch larger volumes of fish than gill-netters. Otherwise, they end up losing money.
“The problem is that this is expensive,” Povelite said. “To put together a seine operation may cost $70,000 or $80,000.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com