Bill would limit salmon gillnetters on Columbia

By Jeff Barnard
Grants Pass, Oregon (AP) March 2011

The sport fishing industry and conservation groups are trying again to force Oregon commercial salmon fishermen off the main stem of the Columbia River and into side bays and estuaries to cut down on the numbers of protected wild fish killed while harvesting hatchery fish.

Proponents argue that a program known as SAFE, which has acclimated hatchery fish to return to bays and side channels just so they can be harvested by gillnetters, has grown to the point it can support the commercial fleet. Gillnetters no longer need to use the main stem of the river, where they are more likely to catch fish protected by the Endangered Species Act, supporters of the change said.

They add that a fish allocated to the recreational fishery generates three to five times the economic impact as one caught by the commercial fleet, because it generates sales of fishing tackle, gas, food, motel stays, and guided trips.

“This is a concept about getting more jobs and economics out of a very limited natural resource,” said Jim Martin, conservation director for the PURE Fishing Inc. tackle companies and former chief of fisheries for Oregon.

But the Columbia gillnet fleet counters that this is just a way for the sport fishing industry to grab more salmon, has no real conservation benefit, and would ultimately spell the end of one of the last freshwater commercial fisheries in the country.

“Our role is to fish for the consumer,” said Jim Wells, a commercial gillnetter based in Astoria and president of the fishermen’s organization Salmon For All. “People who want to buy some salmon need to be able to go to the fish market and buy it.”

Wells added that the commercial fleet has adopted so-called tangle nets, which allow fishermen to release protected fish without killing them. The commercial fleet represents the best chance to exploit the big surplus of hatchery fish produced by federal tax dollars that each year are not caught by anyone and are not needed to reproduce a new generation, he said.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee will take testimony on Senate Bill 736 Thursday in Salem.

A similar bill failed in 2009.

Salmon fishing has been tightly regulated in the Pacific Ocean and West Coast rivers since the 1980s, when populations started to decline from overfishing and loss of habitat to dams, logging, grazing, development and irrigation. Eleven different species of salmon and steelhead that enter the mouth of the Columbia on their spawning run are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

A total of 292 gillnet boats landed fish last year below Bonneville Dam. Commercial fishing is limited to tribal fishermen above the dam. Sport fishermen can fish the whole length. Fishing is shut down when the threat to protected salmon is high.

The idea of getting gillnetters off the main stem Columbia to reduce the take of protected salmon dates to a 1995 plan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service to restore dwindling wild salmon runs on the Snake River, said Liz Hamilton of the Norwest Sport Fishing Industry Association. Hatcheries started releasing fish from bays and sloughs in 1996 so they would return to those places and commercial fishermen could target them. Last year the gillnet fleet landed 24,000 fish taken from the nine areas.

Wells countered that 2009 was an unusually good year, and that the average catch from the so-called SAFE areas was about 5,000 fish for the previous five years.

Wells argued that this was another example of the political split in Oregon between the rural and urban economies, with the commercial fishermen coming from small towns and sport fishing interests coming from big cities.