Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
COLUMBIA RIVER — Seines are on the mainstem of the Columbia River, catching salmon, selling salmon and, in nearly all ways, acting like a normal commercial fishery.
The fishery got off to a slow start last week, with a only few seiners working near the mouth of the river. They landed approximately 100 Chinook in the first two days. Later in the season, more of the river will be open to seine boats.
The fishery opened on the lower river area Aug. 19. Though a number of beach and purse seines have been on the river in recent years, participating in studies as Oregon and Washington fisheries managers seek to move away from commercial gillnetting on the mainstem, those fishermen had not been organized in a commercial fishery. This year is the first time a commercial seine fishery has operated on the river since the gear was outlawed by Washington in 1935 and by Oregon in 1950.
Amid concerns that release mortality rates for seine-caught fish are too high, fisheries managers hope that the data collected from the new research fishery will better help them understand how seines may or may not work on the Columbia River.
Season set on Aug. 12
The Columbia River Compact, with representatives from the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife, set the season Aug. 12.
The fishery is scheduled to continue through the end of the September with a projected catch of 6,000 Chinook. Fisheries managers selected 10 fishermen through a lottery system. Of those 10 permit holders, six will use beach seines and four will use purse seines.
The fishery is mark-selective, meaning seiners can only keep fish with clipped adipose fins: hatchery fish. And the harvest is limited. Each boat has an individual fish quota of 500 Chinook kept and 250 coho kept for the beach seiners and 750 Chinook and 450 coho for the purse seiners.
The fishermen must stop fishing once they hit any of these limits or when they have handled 360 steelhead, which cannot be kept by commercial fishermen. Also, the states are requiring observers to be aboard for every trip a seiner makes.
A current mortality study indicates high mortality rates for Chinook and coho caught in beach seines (34.3 percent and 38.4 percent respectively) and slightly lower, but still high rates for the same fish caught by purse seine (22.5 percent for Chinook and 28.9 percent for coho). Steelhead mortality for both seine methods is significantly lower, hovering at 8.3 percent for beach seines and 3.3 percent for purse seines.
The Compact set 16 fishing periods, each lasting 12.5 to 13.5 hours long. The first four periods will occur in fishing zones 1 and 2, from the mouth of the Columbia River to river mile 53.5. Later fishing periods will stretch from the mouth to just below Bonneville Dam.
Both tribal and non-tribal commercial fishermen have been critical of the seine fisheries.
Gillnetters say they are being forced out of the fishing business by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s policies to shift them off the mainstem and into select fishing areas. Fishermen who participated in the spring opener in Youngs Bay near Astoria said it was one of the worst openers they’d ever experienced.
Those who have the resources can still fish in Alaska or switch over to seine gear, they said. But those with limited resources or aging fishermen who may not be able to handle the seine gear will be out of luck.
Meanwhile, tribal fisheries worry about the effects of a mark selective seine fishery on hatchery fish.
Most tribal fisheries are located upstream. During a fall Chinook run, many of the fish are unmarked, and a mark selective fishery could take a greater toll on the marked hatchery fish, they say.
Tribal representatives, noting the high mortality rates associated with the seine gear, said the fishery appears to be wasteful and inefficient.
In an interview with The Chinook Observer earlier this summer, Ron Roler of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the seine fishery will be “under the microscope.”
And, he added, though he believes gillnet fishing does a good job at not impacting the wrong fish, seining is likely the way of the future for fishing on the Columbia River.
“What I’ve told people is the train is leaving the station,” he said.