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Our View: Restore gillnetting on Columbia River

Former governor repeats debunked claim

Published on October 31, 2018 8:29AM

Gillnetters repair a net in Astoria in 2012.

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Gillnetters repair a net in Astoria in 2012.

Columbia River salmon need all the friends they can get. So why is former Gov. John Kitzhaber still demonizing some of the most knowledgeable and passionate salmon advocates?

Like a boring house guest who won’t shut up and go home, Kitzhaber has popped up again, trying to convince Oregon and Washington policymakers to double down on his failed bet about how to restore the river’s once-legendary salmon runs.

In a video on an anti-commercial fishing website, Kitzhaber repeats the debunked claim that gillnets — the main tool available to provide local salmon for local dinner tables — indiscriminately kill passing fish and marine wildlife.

This ignorant claim either ignores or misunderstands the reality that Columbia gillnetting was fine-tuned to catch specific species and sizes of salmon by varying mesh sizes, location and timing of fishing, and other strategies. Supposedly to preempt an outright ban proposed by 2012’s Ballot Measure 81, Kitzhaber rammed through a clumsy program of barring gillnets from the river’s main stem, expanding net-pen fisheries like the one in Young’s Bay, and researching other methods of harvesting salmon that would avoid impacts on wild-spawning fish.

As The Daily Astorian reported Oct. 24, promises to commercial fishermen have turned out to be empty gestures. Far from avoiding economic damage to fishermen, professional staff members with the two states’ fisheries departments acknowledge the Kitzhaber plan simply isn’t working. It was a political Band-aid, not a valid restoration plan. At one time an emergency-room physician, we must hope Kitzhaber was better at patching up people than patching together salmon policies.

Recreational fishermen, who stood to gain the most from a reallocation of salmon away from gillnetters, have seen only “marginal benefits,” according to Washington fisheries staff.

State officials meet this Thursday for a comprehensive five-year review of the gillnet ban and its aftereffects. They should stand their ground against urban politicians and unwind Kitzhaber’s blunder.

This year was a reminder of the precariousness of salmon runs. For example, the most sought-after fish, spring Chinook, totaled about 88,000 at Bonneville Dam, compared to a 10-year average of nearly twice as many.

The viability of the Chinook fishery and others long relied on a balance between sportsmen, commercial and charter boats, conservationists and tribes. It was an alliance between these interests that succeeded in obtaining money from the Bonneville Power Administration and Congress to rebuild salmon habitat, improve fish passage and implement other expensive pro-salmon steps. There was an explicit understanding that commercial interests — which preserve local economies and provide salmon to non-fishing consumers — are a vital part of this politically potent team.

Kitzhaber broke this finely balanced structure.

In order to restore salmon, we must restore this team. Getting smart, pro-salmon commercial fishermen back on the river is a key step.


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