Kitzhaber re-emerges to back gillnet ban

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber is championing his plan to ban gillnets on the Columbia River.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber has re-emerged to champion a divisive plan he implemented to ban gillnets on the Columbia River — even as state fishery managers say the plan is not living up to expectations.

Kitzhaber appears in several videos in a campaign to urge Gov. Kate Brown and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee to stick with the reform policy adopted in 2013.

The two states, which jointly manage fisheries on the river, are engaged in a comprehensive five-year review of the policy and are set to meet Nov. 1.

The states attempted to replace gillnets — vertical nets that catch fish by their gills — with other types of gear to protect salmon.

Commercial fishermen argue gillnet gear is selective and does not unduly impact salmon runs, while sport fishing and conservation groups disagree. So far, neither state has come up with a replacement gear for gillnets, though Washington has continued to experiment with seine nets.

Under the Kitzhaber plan, gillnetters were directed to off-channel areas like Youngs Bay.

The videos of Kitzhaber appear on a website called The videos feature people like Larry Cassidy, who has been president of the Northwest Steelheaders, a sport fishing group. He has testified in favor of the Kitzhaber plan to replace gillnets with seine nets and he questioned the results of studies on seine nets that concluded mortality rates were far higher than expected with the gear.

The website declares, “Gillnets are nonselective killers. Keep gillnets off the lower Columbia,” with the words superimposed over a video loop showing salmon being fished with gillnets, suspended in nets, swimming freely and leaping up waterfalls.

“It’s very important for Oregon and Washington to maintain this compromise that protects the wild salmon runs in the main stem of the Columbia River, while still allowing the use of gillnets in off-channel areas to harvest hatchery fish,” Kitzhaber said in a statement.

“Gillnets are an indiscriminate tool for harvesting fish — they snare and kill the wild and endangered salmon we are trying to protect, as well as other river wildlife.”

Jim Wells, a gillnetter and president of the commercial fishing advocacy group, Salmon For All, isn’t buying it.

Washington state has not managed to open a select area for gillnet fishermen or find a suitable alternative to gillnets. Overall, the commercial fishery saw a decrease in what fishermen got for their catch, noted a document prepared by staff to assist the Washington fish and wildlife commissioners in evaluating the policy at a meeting this month. 

The expected large economic benefits from the policy shift have not materialized for commercial or recreational fishing. In fact, the recreational fisheries have only seen “marginal benefits” with changes to the percentage of salmon runs they are allocated. “The expectations in the development of the policy were not met,” staff concluded. 

Oregon and Washington agreed to begin the reform policy in 2013, but have diverged at times in the years since the plan was adopted. Last year, Oregon considered allowing gillnetters time on the river, a direction contrary to the original plan to phase gillnets off the main stem by 2017.

Under pressure from Brown, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission backed down. However, when the commission met in Clatsop County earlier this year, commissioners spoke in support of gillnetters. Last year, Oregon fishery staff reported similar findings about the economic success of the policy as Washington’s fishery staff.

“We could see (the policy) wasn’t performing as it was originally intended,” said Tucker Jones, ocean salmon Columbia River program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In response, the commission approved additional smolt releases to increase production in certain commercial fishing areas in the long term, among other measures.

The summary from Washington’s fishery managers says “the plan’s not working,” Wells said. “It’s not working for the sport fishermen, it’s not working for the commercial guys. … The select (areas) aren’t working, target gears aren’t working.

“With all that,” Wells concluded, “Kitzhaber can say what he wants.”

Kitzhaber’s stance on gillnetting came with a political price in Clatsop County. Kitzhaber had won the county in his three previous campaigns for governor, but narrowly lost during his re-election campaign in 2014.

Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 amid an ethics scandal involving his fiancee. He was replaced by Brown, who chose to continue with the reform policy.

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