Gillnet fishers get a reprieve

Commercial fishermen are fighting a plan by Oregon and Washington state to phase out gillnetting on the main stem of the Columbia River.

SALEM — The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday voted to extend by one year a reform policy that would ban gillnetting on the main stem of the Columbia River.

The extension of the transition period runs through 2017, giving commissioners some breathing room to refine the policy, which was meant to help endangered salmon and steelhead.

“The extension will allow for more consideration by commission members and consultation with management partners,” according to a release from commission staff.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission has been reviewing whether to rebalance the Columbia River reform policy and allow limited use of gillnets on the river’s main stem rather than phase the practice out entirely.

Oregon and Washington state agreed to eliminate gillnetting on the main stem over four years, encourage commercial fishermen to use alternative gear or off-channel areas, and increase opportunities for sport fishing. Commercial fishermen have fought the policy change since 2012 as a potentially devastating financial blow, as well as the end of a way of life for generations who have worked the river.

Commissioners did not have confidence that Oregon could refine the reform policy by the end of January given several uncertainties.

Full policy implementation by early next year would have been “pretty much a death nail for the commercial fisheries,” said Commissioner Laura Anderson, who owns and operates Local Ocean Seafoods, a restaurant and fish market in Newport. “And, in my opinion, that would spark an undue amount of political upheaval and unrest with other states, countries and tribal interests.

“And I’m not willing to stake as much confidence as some are on our ability to come to an agreement.”

Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster, the retired owner and CEO of Bio-Oregon and an Astoria fisherman, said commissioners had a concern about “a community falling off the cliff. This just takes that off the table, gives us time to work.”

The vote to extend the transition period was 5-2.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will discuss the reform policy again at a January meeting and could adopt rules and a revised timeline for implementation. In the weeks before the meeting, Oregon will also consult with Washington on potential changes.

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