Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Gillnet fishermen bristled at a requirement to carry state observers last fall, but what felt like a burden to the fleet may have turned out to be a blessing.
Preliminary data collected on the trips show that the number of steelhead fishermen kill while trying to catch other fish may actually be much lower than the historic rate. It’s good news for a fishery that has been under fire for using gear opponents say harms fish runs — and even better timing. Last year’s steelhead run was one of the worst returns in decades.
Historic rates for steelhead mortality are around 49 percent. Essentially, states expect that half of the fish that fishermen snag in their nets will be dead. Data collected during test fishing and observed trips in the 1980s and 1990s set these standards. More recent observations are beginning to change the picture.
“What we’ve seen in 2009, 2012 and now 2017 ranged between 8 and 24 percent mortality,” said Tucker Jones, ocean salmon Columbia River program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Beyond the forced move away from the main stem, gillnetting has changed little over the years. The biggest changes are how the fishery uses sized mesh and shorter, evening fishing times to target certain salmon runs.
“Pending some independent review, our analysis looks like we might have well overestimated the mortality,” said Bill Tweit, special assistant to the director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The two men plan to present the information to their commissions in the coming months as planning gets underway for fishing seasons on the Columbia River. They don’t plan to ask for a repeat of observer coverage.
It was a hard year for most gillnetters. Legislation passed in 2012 has phased them off the river’s main stem almost entirely. Though they had a decent extended spring season in the off-channel fishing grounds, or select areas, money was tight and expectations were low, fishermen said.
The only time gillnetters had on the river’s main stem was during the fall, and only for seven fishing periods. They were also limited to what fishery managers refer to as Zones 4 and 5, a section of river that extends southeast from St. Helens to Beacon Rock near Bonneville Dam.
While fishing in these zones, a handful of gillnetters, including Jim Wells, the president of commercial fishing advocacy organization Salmon For All, and Port of Astoria Commissioner Bill Hunsinger were cited for refusing to allow state observers on their boats in August and September.
Their reasons ranged from safety issues, to questions about liability, to confusion over what the state had promised in terms of how often any single fisherman would be asked to carry an observer. Some of the concerns they and other gillnetters raised still need to be addressed, state fishery managers said.
Tweit and others thought they understood the maritime insurance issues that might arise going into the season. The 20 observers — six from Oregon, 14 from Washington state — would be covered by the states’ workers’ compensation programs if anything happened to them on board a boat.
“What I think we didn’t understand as well as we do now is that just because they’re covered under workers’ comp doesn’t necessarily preclude them from going after the skipper,” Tweit said. “And we don’t have any real coverage for that under current law.”
Most gillnetters fish alone. They captain small boats with gear they can manage by themselves. When they do bring along crew, it’s usually a family member. With a crew that is just themselves or a person they trust, few fishermen carry insurance policies to protect themselves from being sued if something goes wrong on the water, Wells said.
“We’re just wide open for a lawsuit, and guys our age, our earning power is worn out,” Wells said. “If I lost (money in a lawsuit) now, I could never recoup it.”
The men who faced citations ranged in age from their late 60s to 74 years old.
For Wells, though, the bigger issue concerned the number of times he was asked to carry an observer.
“To ensure broad sample of the fleet, ODFW and WDFW will maintain a list of observed vessels for each fishing period, and the same vessel will not be observed on consecutive fishing periods,” states a sampling plan for the two states.
Wells fished one period, missed a second and then came back for a third. He mistakenly believed that because he was observed for the first period, he would not be observed again. When the state boat approached him to put an observer on board, he refused. It was a rough night and wasn’t safe, he said.
When he later received notice from the Oregon State Police that he was being charged for violating the law, he decided to get a lawyer and fight it. Hunsinger, who had also refused to take an observer on board because of liability concerns, represented himself. Their charges were lowered to citations and the Multnomah County Circuit Court judge who heard their case fined them the minimum amount of $225, a suspended fine that will evaporate if the men don’t have any convictions or tickets in the next year.
Roger Stecker, another gillnetter who refused to let an observer board his boat, decided to plead guilty. His charge was knocked down to a citation and he was fined $750. His concerns were over safety, he said. The night the observer wanted to board his boat, Stecker said the wind was blowing hard and he was in the middle of fixing a net that had been shredded when a sport boat ran over it the day before. He plans to talk with the Coast Guard about what his options are for denying access to his boat if he believes conditions are unsafe.
Stecker estimates he has had observers on his boat more than a dozen times over the course of his career. It has usually been a positive experience and he said he has always tried to follow the rules. The citation and his guilty plea have weighed on him.
For the most part, the states saw a high amount of voluntary compliance, and the observation plan met its goals, one of which was to validate data about the ratio of steelhead-to-Chinook salmon that fishermen encounter.
“Not only did it validate our models, I think it allowed us to have as much fishing as we did,” Tweit said. The new data about steelhead mortality was “a sort of unexpected benefit from the work.”