A proposed Oregon ballot measure would effectively end gillnetting on the main stem of the Columbia River. This is an old and weary battle, but with a new spin. Under the proposal, fishermen would be allowed to use seine nets instead.
Seine nets do offer some degree of promise when it comes to being able to catch and sort fish, allowing non-hatchery salmon to be released. Seines, which essentially corral fish, may allow this sorting to be less injurious than gillnets. As their name implies, gillnets snag fish by the gills. But salmon are also capable of getting tangled in seines.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, in closely watched experiments, has been contracting with fishermen to test a variety of alternative fishing methods, including types of seines. These tests have shown some promise, though it's still too soon to say whether they offer really distinct advantages over gillnets.
This harkens back to debates - and to literally bloody fights - that raged on the Columbia in the late-19th and early-20th centuries between practitioners of different fishing methods. Seines, fish traps and fish wheels were some of the menu of options available for harvesting salmon runs. Dominated by different communities, ethnic groups and other divisions, these types of fishing were gradually outlawed or sharply curtailed.
Gillnetting survived and is a key source of income for area families, as well as the main way in which most residents of the Lower Columbia are able to put locally caught salmon on our dinner tables.
A wholesale switch to seines would not be cheap or easy. Generations of investments in customized boats, nets and other equipment would become obsolete overnight. Hard-won expertise in one type of fishing would become irrelevant. It is possible to conceive overcoming these obstacles if necessary, but it is difficult to image that government agencies would be of much help. The real bottom-line effect might well be to drive commercial fishing closer to extinction.
The sports fishing industry has pursued an anti-commercial fishing agenda in various ways for years. This ballot measure is the most recent iteration. Greed is a motivator. And powerful interests would like nothing more than for Columbia salmon fishing to cease to exist as anything but a hobby. Utility companies, shippers, irrigators and federal agencies would all relish life without pesky commercial fishermen or fish.
We all need to work together on behalf of salmon, with the knowledge that fishermen of every kind are the best friends salmon can have. The continuing viability of all kinds of fishing is crucial to fending off the long-standing drive to industrialize the river. The extinction of any type of fishing would remove a vital contingent of salmon advocates, thus increasing the odds of salmon extinction.
Voters should say no to efforts to sink commercial fishing. Add seining as an option. Don't make it the only option.