CORVALLIS — The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has voted unanimously to curtail gillnet fish harvests, altering an earlier decision that was more favorable to commercial fishermen.
Rules adopted by the commission in January retained use of the controversial fishing method for Chinook salmon along the main stem of the Columbia River during summer, which conflicted with Washington state’s regulations for the same water body.
The earlier rules also diverged from Washington’s by allocating a larger proportion of harvestable fish to commercial fishermen.
The discrepancies prompted Gov. Kate Brown to demand that commission members bring Oregon’s rules into alignment with those in Washington by early April.
Under the new rules adopted by the commission Friday at a meeting in Corvallis, gillnets will no longer be permitted to harvest summer Chinook.
However, the regulations still are not identical to Washington’s, as gillnets will be allowed in upstream zones of the Columbia River to harvest fall Chinook.
Tangle nets — an alternative gear that’s considered less indiscriminate — will be permitted for spring Chinook in Oregon, but not in Washington.
Commercial fishermen will also be allocated 30 percent of the fall Chinook population that can be harvested under the Endangered Species Act, compared to 25 percent in Washington.
Even so, the Oregon commercial fleet’s share of fall Chinook was reduced from 34 percent under the previous rules.
‘The bottom line’
Holly Akenson, a wildlife biologist and commission member, voted for the new rules despite saying she felt uncomfortable with the change.
“If Washington can’t meet us here, I’m not interested in any additional negotiations,” she said. “For me, this is the bottom line.”
Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries and a board member of Salmon for All, said he was disappointed. He added that while gillnetters can harvest some fish, “they won’t let you have a net to do it. So if you have a spear, or a bow and arrow, or a hook and line in the main stem …
“So that essentially makes it very, very challenging for us to come up with something that can get any kind of a consumer share.”
“We did not have a fishery for 50 years for recreational or commercial. And we had — with environmental groups and recreational interests — we had fought to recover those runs to harvest full numbers. It’s really disappointing that the recreational sector has pushed forward where they get essentially all the fish. So that’s disappointing.”
Commercial fishermen argued that gillnets are necessary to maintain economically viable yields, but sport fishermen and conservationists want to replace them with more selective methods.
Commercial fishermen said the commission had made the right choice in January and should not be forced to change the regulations.
“I hope you stick to your guns,” Mike Wullger, a commercial fisherman from Astoria, had urged commissioners before the vote.
This sentiment was echoed by fisherman Jim Coleman, who said he bristled at the personal attacks on commission members after their January decision.
“I don’t know what legal authority the governor has to force you to change your vote, but I know morally she shouldn’t,” Coleman said.
The lopsided portion of harvestable fish allocated to sport fishermen — 70 to 80 percent, depending on season — was also a complaint among commercial fishermen.
Scott Winterbauer said that until commercial fishing offered him a new career path, he was a “failed photographer with no prospects” who lived with his mother.
“Don’t take food out of my family’s mouth for the sake of a hobby,” he said.
Salmon for All, an association representing gillnetters, fish buyers and associated businesses, emphasized the downstream economic impacts of the commercial industry.
“Tourism does not provide family wage jobs,” said Barbra Wells, a member of the group.
‘Not a hobby’
Sport fishermen and fishing guides objected to these characterizations, arguing the economic impacts of recreational fishing outweigh those of commercial gillnetting.
“I can tell you, it’s not a hobby,” said Tim Schoonover, who owns a fishing supplies company.
Fishing guides also support their families and small coastal towns, said Bob Rees, executive director of NW Steelheaders, a fishing advocacy group.
“We are a community that feels slighted,” he said. “We too live in rural communities.”
Sports fishermen disputed a common refrain of the commercial fleet — “a dead fish is a dead fish,” meaning that any method of harvest takes a toll on the population.
Fish caught with a hook and line can be released if they’re from a wild, federally protected population, said Dave Schamp, president of the Coastal Conservation Association. Hatchery fish are marked with a clipped fin.
“In the case of a gillnet, it’s going to kill them all,” he said.
Officials from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife clarified that roughly 40 to 60 percent of the fish caught in gillnets die, compared to about 10 to 20 percent with sport-fishing equipment.
“All gears can be used to catch and release fish,” said Curt Melcher, the agency’s director.
Members of the sport fishing community said the commission’s earlier rules departed from the trajectory set by former Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2012.
That year, Kitzhaber struck a bi-state deal with Washington to conserve fish, effectively forestalling a ballot initiative aimed at banning gillnets.
Gillnets aren’t compatible with the type of long-term management that ensures stable populations instead of a “whipsaw” between abundance and depletion, said Guido Rahr, president of the Wild Salmon Center, an environmental nonprofit.
“The chance is to usher in a new generation,” he said.
Sport fishermen don’t want to eliminate commercial fishing as a career and have each been paying a $10 fee into a fund that helps transition toward alternative gear, said John Hass of the Coastal Conservation Association.
“The future is clearly not gillnetting,” he said.
While Oregon has agreed to align most of its regulations with those in Washington, some commissioners pointed out that they’re held to a different standard than regulators in that state.
Under Oregon law, the commission must ensure the economic viability of the commercial fleet, said Michael Finley, the commission’s chairman.
“Washington doesn’t have this statute,” he said.
In light of the discord with Washington regulations, though, “our hands are tied in Oregon, and we can’t do what we want for commercial fishermen,” said Akenson.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.