The Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission is giving commercial gillnet fishermen time on the Columbia River this year, temporarily reversing a policy that had banned them from the river’s main stem.
The commission voted 3-1 Saturday in favor of the change, which would allow gillnets during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Two commissioners, including Larry Carpenter, the chairman, abstained, saying they wanted more time to collect public input.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the proposal at a meeting March 15.
Under the policy change, gillnetters will probably not get out on the river until the summer.
Spring salmon seasons have already been set and gillnetters will be allowed to fish the main stem this spring only if run sizes come in well over what is anticipated — an unlikely scenario given how low the predictions are for upriver spring Chinook, said Ryan Lathrop, Columbia River fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The change, recommended by a committee that included fish and wildlife commissioners from Oregon and Washington state, only applies to this year’s river salmon fisheries. It was an effort to get both states on the same page this year.
Columbia River Reform, also known as the Kitzhaber Plan after former Gov. John Kitzhaber, was enacted in 2013 with the goal to phase gillnets off the river’s main stem by 2017.
Oregon and Washington state manage river fisheries together, but have diverged in recent years over whether or not to allow gillnets back on the main stem. Oregon has been interested in allowing gillnets back on the river.
The joint Oregon-Washington committee plans to continue meeting to discuss a long-term overhaul of salmon management policies.
“The major policy changes are yet to come,” said Commissioner Robert Kehoe, who served on the committee and voted in favor of the change for the season.
The discussion in Washington dismayed sport fishing groups. A representative of the Spokane chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group that has long opposed gillnets on the river, said the fishery and its practices belong to the past.
Commissioner David Graybill, who served on the joint committee, did not support the change to the original policy and voted against the recommendation Saturday. He cited ongoing concerns about the size of salmon runs, and debated the actual economic impacts of the Kitzhaber Plan on commercial fishermen.
“I want to make it loud and clear to that group that I’m not going to accept going backwards,” he said, addressing sport fishing representatives. “An increased share for the gillnet fleet is not to be considered.”
But commercial fishermen and commissioners countered that the original policy has not met its goals and needs to be adjusted.
A five-year review of the policy completed by Washington fishery staff last year found both commercial and recreational fishermen were not seeing promised economic enhancements or stability as a result of the policy. The commercial fishermen saw active declines in their economic opportunities.
Washington has yet to find any good commercial alternatives to gillnets. Proposed alternatives like purse and beach seines were costly for fishermen and appear to negatively impact steelhead, researchers found during test fishing with the gear. Nor has the state identified off-channel areas to replace the main stem fishing grounds commercial fishermen lost.
Oregon has had more success at establishing off-channel fishing areas, but a similar review by state fish and wildlife staff came to the same conclusions about alternative gear and the economic impacts of the policy.