By Robert Sudar
When Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announced on August 8th that he would be asking the Oregon Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W) Commission to draft plans for moving the commercial non-Indian gillnet fishery out of the mainstem Columbia River and into off-channel “SAFE” areas, it caught everyone in the industry by surprise. Commercial fishermen have been focused on defeating Oregon Initiative 81, promoted by various sportfishing groups and funded primarily by Norman Brenden, a Vancouver businessman. Governor Kitzhaber is suggesting that voters turn down the initiative and instead back his plan.
Most of the coverage so far of Kitzhaber’s plan has been based on statements from his office, from the Oregon Commission, and from a few of the major players in the issue. He claims that his plan is a conservation-based approach to, in his words, eliminate the “perennial and divisive conflicts” between user groups. In reality, it’s just another political approach to turning the wonderful salmon runs of the Columbia over to sportfishing interests. The true conservation plans are the various Salmon Recovery Plans developed in Oregon and Washington with public input and stakeholder involvement over a period of several years, and accepted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Governor Kitzhaber's proposal should have similar vetting, rather than proposing a rush to rulemaking over a couple of months. An Environmental Impact Statement also seems like a reasonable requirement for such a massive change in where and how fisheries will take place.
All current gillnet openings on the Columbia pass the conservation test. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be allowed under Endangered Species Act (ESA) guidelines, since some ESA listed stocks of salmon or steelhead are present in the Columbia during almost all times of the year. The fleet has adapted tangle nets and added recovery boxes to their spring Chinook fishery, along with shortened net soak times, to lower the mortality rate to 14 percent for released wild fish. This compares favorably to the 10 percent rate applied to the sport fishery, and was determined in a study using the gear on the Columbia in the spring, whereas the sport rate comes from a study in the Willamette River.
During other times of the year, the commercial fleet uses zone closures and mesh size restrictions to avoid protected fish, such as in the August Chinook fishery. This last summer the fleet harvested more than 20,000 Chinook in (9) 9-hour openings by fishing primarily above the Lewis River (near Woodland) and using 9-inch mesh, so they could target healthy wild upriver bright stocks headed to the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia, stay above the protected lower river hatchery stocks, and pass steelhead through their nets.
Governor Kitzhaber wants to expand hatchery programs to existing and new SAFE areas in an effort to maintain the economic value of the commercial fishery to lower Columbia River communities where most of the fishermen live. That's an ambitious goal – almost 65 percent of the landed value of the gillnet fleet presently comes from their mainstem fishery. The first challenge revolves around funding. A proposal in the Oregon Legislature in 2011 was killed in committee when it was made clear that there was no funding to increase hatchery production. In addition, other possible SAFE areas were explored in the past and none were found to be viable, either in Oregon or Washington, primarily due to poor returns, straying of hatchery fish to areas where they weren’t wanted, and the presence of ESA fish from the mainstem.
Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA) has stated that this is a good plan because it falls in line with the development of the Young’s Bay SAFE area by Astoria in 1994 as a replacement for mainstem gillnet fisheries. The commercial industry never agreed that Young’s Bay or similar off-channel fisheries would replace the mainstem fishery – it would only be a supplementation. In reality, enhancement was being done at Young’s Bay by local fishermen long before 1994. The only difference is that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) agreed then to fund the Young’s Bay program as partial mitigation for salmon killed by the hydropower system. It has been a struggle in recent years to maintain that funding, and BPA says their contribution will end by 2017.
Some reporters have said that conservation groups have supported the removal of gillnets from the mainstem. In the past twenty years, one initiative in Oregon and two in Washington that would have eliminated gillnetting have been on the ballot. All of those were soundly defeated by more than 60 percent of voters, largely because the conservation and environmental community recognized that these initiatives are political allocation issues and have nothing to do with rebuilding the resource. The only conservation group that has signed on to the current initiative is the Humane Society. Their primary involvement has been protecting sea lions at Bonneville Dam. Another group that uses “conservation” in their name – the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) – is a sportfishing organization and nothing more.
Governor Kitzhaber says his proposal will minimize mortality of wild fish and promote recovery. There is no mention in the plan of allowing the commercial quota of incidental mortalities of protected stocks to pass on up the river to spawn. That quota would simply be transferred to the sports community, giving them a larger harvest and a longer season.
The word “indiscriminate” has been applied by supporters of the Governor’s plan and the initiative when describing the gillnet fishery on the Columbia. ODFW has observers onboard commercial vessels during most commercial openings. The handling of target and non-target salmon stocks is recorded and used in the calculation of impacts on ESA stocks. The fishermen are able, time and again, to harvest their quotas without being halted due to excessive bycatch. Catch of non-target species and birds is also tracked. The Columbia fishery has the best ranking for bird interactions with nets – it’s totally a non-factor, as is lost nets on the river.
From a buyer’s perspective, the Columbia River harvest is important because it is composed primarily of Chinook and Coho, two of the preferred salmon in the marketplace. The fish are big because many stocks have to negotiate hundreds of miles of river to reach their natal streams, and they have high fat content, too. That gives them excellent eating qualities. The salmon from the SAFE areas are fine fish, but they are smaller, especially the Chinook – 12- to 15-lb average versus 14- to 22-lb in the mainstem. The fishermen can tell the difference, as can knowledgeable fish vendors and consumers. In addition, the majority of the SAFE production is Coho, whereas most of the mainstem harvest is Chinook – Governor Kitzhaber has not addressed how his plan would overcome that imbalance.
While Puget Sound Coho and Chinook were designated “sport priority” species almost 20 years ago, the Columbia Chinook and Coho are the primary inland salmon of those species that are available via commercial non-Indian harvest. They are local fish harvested by local fishermen and available to local markets in Washington and Oregon less than a day after harvest. That is a huge benefit to the non-fishing residents of both states, especially in light of the recent movement to local, natural foods. To suggest that the consumer should be satisfied with hatchery fish from lower river side-channels, or Alaskan fish, or farmed fish, is a slap in the face to the fish-buying public.
Governor Kitzhaber’s plan does provide for the use of seines in the Columbia by commercial fishermen, but the ability of the fishermen to switch to that gear has yet to be proven on an economic basis, and even in terms of harvest volume. Testing has been going on for three years and the gear does catch fish and allow the release of non-target stocks, but there are issues yet to be resolved. What is the mortality rate for handled and released fish? How many impacts on ESA stocks will be needed by a seine fishery, even if the mortality rate is lower? Where will those impacts come from? How do the fishermen switch to the new gear since very few of the boats used on the Columbia can be converted to seining? And how many fishermen could the seine harvest support? Until questions like those can be answered it is premature to expect a meaningful conversion to commercial seining on the lower Columbia.
Despite the many concerns about the Kitzhaber plan amongst Columbia River gillnetters, it is moving ahead. The ODF&W has agreed to consider it, as has the Washington Commission. A panel of commissioners from both states, along with two sports and two commercial representatives from each side of the Columbia, will be meeting in Olympia on September 21st and in Salem on October 22 to consider implementation. It’s difficult to understand how the Governor’s proposal is the conservation-based plan that will create the salmon recovery he suggests is his goal. It seems more likely that he is attempting to force a political resolution in favor of sport fishermen in a longstanding controversy where the sportfishing industry has been trying to gain a complete monopoly of the non-Indian fishery. The issue has withstood the test of voter initiatives and factual discussion in years past but it’s too soon to know if those facts will play any role in this new conversation.
Columbia River Commercial fisherman and buyer Robert Sudar has served as commercial adviser to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the last 20 years.