Oregon Anti-Gillnet Initiative
by Bill Rudolph
Buoyed by $500,000 in contributions from a single Washington resident, the supporters of a bill that would end non-tribal gillnetting in Oregon waters had collected more than 92,000 signatures by May 25, about 5,000 more than required by the state to place the measure on the November ballot. Five days later, backers announced they had topped 105,000 signatures, and were submitting them to the Oregon secretary of state for early verification. All signatures must be turned in by July 6.
The initiative is trying to blow the lower Columbia commercial gillnet fleet out of the water, an industry that has been in business since the late 1800s. But it is trying to soft pedal the issue by allowing more selective purse seines, a type of fishing gear outlawed on the Columbia decades ago because it was so efficient.
A few years ago, some Oregon politicians tried to legislate the gillnetters out of business, but their bill got nowhere.
Currently, purse seines are being tested by WDFW as a way to harvest more hatchery-marked salmon while releasing wild salmon, some of which are listed for ESA protection. Several more years of long-term mortality studies are planned before the evaluation will be completed.
The agency is focused on the lower Columbia at this point, where managers hope to use the seines as a way of catching more marked lower Columbia hatchery chinook and coho, to keep them from entering streams where ESA-listed wild stocks spawn.
But it's premature to think the seines will work as planned, said Hobe Kytr, spokesman for the Astoria-based gillnetter group Salmon For All. Immediate mortality from released fish is very low, he admitted, but nobody knows what the long-term effects yet are. He said only about 16 boats would be needed to catch the amount of salmon the 170-boat gillnet fleet now divides among itself during good fishing seasons.
If the initiative passes, it still leaves in place the tribal net fishery above Bonneville Dam, which harvests much more chinook than the non-tribal net sector. Lower river gillnetters say it's just a way for sport fishermen to ultimately grab more salmon for themselves.
But initiative supporters downplay the possibility they would end up with more fish to catch, and say it's all about improving the lot of wild salmon. "The message is clear: Oregonians support sustainable fisheries reform," stated David Schamp, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association, in a May 30 statement. CCA is one of the chief petitioners. "It's time to stop using an outdated commercial fishing method that indiscriminately catches and kills endangered salmon and wildlife. As a state we invest tremendous financial and volunteer resources in wild salmon recovery efforts yet these iconic species remain on the brink of extinction," Schamp said, who did not return calls for more information.
"It's really all about upriver versus downriver interests," said Kytr, who said the huge war chest behind the initiative will make it much harder to defeat than a 1992 attempt at doing away with the gillnetters, called Measure 8.
"If this passes, we're gone, and the select area fisheries [Select Area Fisheries Enchancement] are gone." he added.
Kytr said the select area net pens where salmon are raised to give commercials a chance to reduce impacts to ESA-listed fish by fishing outside of the mainstem also produces lots of fish caught by recreational fishers in the ocean and lower Columbia. He said that was why the gillnetters were supported by the charter fishing associations in both Ilwaco and Westport.
The net pen costs are funded by BPA and the states. Lately, the power marketing agency pumps in $1.9 million a year, and has spent more than $14 million on the project since 2004. But the SAFE project is not so safe after all, and could be axed soon. The agency is looking for ways to cut costs after secondary power sales are much lower than expected because of low natural gas prices for thermal generating plants.
In 2007, an independent economic review found it was difficult to determine whether the net pen project was cost-effective, but estimated that SAFE produced nearly 14,000 chinook for recreational fishers in the estuary and ocean in 2006. The review said catches in these areas involved higher incidental catches of ESA-listed stocks, "and this should be weighed against recreational benefits."
The report estimated that without continued BPA funding, coho releases would decrease by 15 percent and the value of the commercial coho fishery would go down by more than 90 percent, since most of the fish would have much less value as surplus hatchery spawners.
With the increase in ex-vessel fish prices in recent years, the report said the SAFE project generated about $3 million in value from all regional fisheries, two to four times the value to SAFE-area fishermen.
In 2008, sportfishing groups pushed a policy that tried to keep the gillnetters out of the mainstem altogether. The two sectors have been battling for years, arguing over allocations. Currently, the non-tribal allocation for spring chinook is split 65/35 with recreational users getting the larger share. And this year, managers say it's been more like 75/25. The proportions are based on estimated impacts to ESA-listed spring chinook, which neither side can keep.
It's estimated that hooking mortality from releasing wild fish is around 10 percent. Managers estimate a whopping 40 percent post-release mortality for wild chinook and 30 percent for steelhead when large mesh nets are used. When fishers use much smaller mesh tangle nets, they expect chinook mortality to be cut by about 50 percent. Gillnetters say PIT-tag research has shown long-term mortality for fish released from small-mesh tangle nets is more like 12 percent.
If the initiative passes, it would not have any effect on overall harvest rates--since the non-tribal share would not change. For an upriver spring chinook run in the Columbia of around 200,000 fish, it averages around 2 percent, while tribal fishers above Bonneville are allowed about 10 percent for ceremonial, subsistence, and commercial fishing.
Upriver fall chinook harvest is also on a sliding scale, depending on the run size and the portion that is headed for the Snake River. It can be as high as 45 percent, with treaty fishers taking 30 percent.
For B run steelhead, a run over 35,000 fish, coupled with a fall chinook run of more than 200,000, would allow a 20-percent harvest rate for tribal fishers and a 2-percent rate for non-tribal fishers.
The initiative has particular language that calls for percentages of total state, non-tribal harvests, including off-channel fishery enhancement areas that are landed in the recreational fisheries of the Columbia and its tributaries are not to be reduced below the averages of the 2007-2011 fisheries. It would also block Washington gillnetters from selling salmon caught in Oregon waters.
Kytr said if Initiative 21 passes, most of the older gillnetters will just quit, but a few of the younger fishermen see an opportunity ahead, though it would likely be several years before it might be allowed. "It's sure going to be a lot tougher battle than last time," he said.
WDFW regional fish manager Pat Frazier said his agency is in the middle of ongoing implementation studies of both beach and purse seines, slated to continue through 2013. The work is funded by a combination of Congressional dollars from Mitchell Act funding and the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund.
Frazier said it is likely the seines could play a role in future harvest management, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about how their implementation would affect sport and commercial fisheries. "It's not as simple as people would like to think," he told NW Fishletter.
Results are preliminary, he said, but after one year of data gathering, it looks like the mortality for PIT-tagged steelhead released from the nets is less than 5 percent. No numbers are yet available for chinook and coho.
If the Oregon initiative passes, it would be "very challenging" to implement, said Frazier, before managers have had a chance to figure out how seines would fit into future harvest management. "The unintended consequences may not be so nice."
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