Ted Shorack/The Daily Astorian
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is again pushing for commercial salmon fishermen to get time on the Columbia River.
Oregon and Washington state adopted a policy nearly six years ago to slowly phase gillnetters off the river’s main stem, but Oregon has second-guessed the wisdom of the decision.
The five commissioners at a meeting in Astoria on Friday said they supported looking into a summer Chinook salmon season for gillnetters — something they attempted to do last year. Commissioners walked back that move, however, after Gov. Kate Brown instructed them to align with her administration and Washington state. The two states jointly manage salmon fisheries on the river.
On Friday, Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster of Astoria acknowledged the commission may again be forced to moderate its stance, but he wanted to make sure it was clear commissioners are open to the possibility of allowing commercial fishing on the river’s main stem.
The policy to phase gillnets off the river — often referred to as the Kitzhaber plan for its champion, former Gov. John Kitzhaber — was passed in 2012. It was first pitched as a way to protect wild salmon and steelhead runs by replacing gillnets with more selective gear.
Oregon and Washington state have experimented with a variety of gear on the river’s main stem since 2012, including purse and beach seines. Data gathered over the years — and specifically last fall — appear to indicate that gillnets do not impact fish to the extent advocates of the Kitzhaber plan claimed, or that gear like seines provide a better option.
“We have seen some time pass and we have seen the results of our current management and it hasn’t gone where we all had hoped it would as far as successes on both sides,” Commissioner Holly Akenson said.
Akenson encouraged commercial fishermen to continue to “pressure Washington.”
“As you know there is a will within this commission to allow more opportunities on the Columbia main stem for commercial fishermen,” she told one fisherman who spoke. “Our problem is that we are constrained by Washington’s resistance.”
Gillnetters who spoke out at Friday’s meeting at the Clatsop County fairgrounds — the first commission meeting held in Astoria since 2012 — said the Kitzhaber plan altered their ability to make a living. They pointed to lost income and opportunities as well as wear and tear on their gear in off-channel waters like Youngs Bay, where gillnetting is still allowed.
Under the Kitzhaber plan, gillnets were supposed to be fully phased off the Columbia River main stem last year.
Several fishermen urged commissioners to take advantage of an adaptive management option built into the Kitzhaber plan, which allows Oregon and Washington state to adjust the policy. Jim Coleman, a commercial fisherman out of St. Helens, referenced former Commissioner Laura Anderson, who said at her last meeting in March that the plan “looks like a total failure.”
The policy has not yet provided promised conservation or economic benefits, Anderson said. She hoped commercial fishermen and their advocates would continue to debate the policy.
“I truly believe the gillnet is a selective gear when used in the right place at the right time, as a conservation benefit,” she said. “There are economic benefits and there are hundreds of thousands of consumers that benefit from that fishery that we don’t talk about often enough.”
Bob Oleson was in the audience for Friday’s meeting and left feeling discouraged. He is a sport fishing advocate who also works as a consultant with the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, though he was not representing the association at the meeting.
“Oregon has moved toward achieving a balance between the sport fisheries and the gillnetters,” he said afterwards. “It now seems like the commission is seriously considering backtracking on that and reversing course.”