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Ecology and salmon related articles

Oregon Approves Changes to
Lower Columbia Fisheries

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, December 13, 2012

A Fall Chinook succumbs to a gill net. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission last week approved recommendations from a bi-state task force that calls for phasing out lower Columbia commercial gillnetters' harvest in the mainstem over the next few years. It would also restrict the 200 or so fishermen to off-channel fishing areas by 2017. The mainstem will be prioritized for recreational fishermen, but commercial fishermen would be able to use selective gear, such as purse seines, in certain situations, to harvest more hatchery fish than they do now, because of reduced impact to ESA-listed wild stocks.

The move would give the recreational sector 80 percent of the ESA impacts allowed for the non-Indian harvest on most salmon runs, up from 50-60 percent. Billed as a way to reduce commercial impacts to ESA-listed runs in the Columbia Basin, the plan does not change the overall impacts of the non-Indian fisheries, though it has been sold that way.

The "reform" effort was based on a proposal last August by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to diffuse an initiative on the November ballot that would have outlawed all gillnetting in the state. The initiative failed after sport fishing groups dropped support and touted the governor's plan, which described vague conservation benefits from its adoption.

Spokesmen for the commercial groups, which spent about $850,000 to defeat the initiative, are not sold on the proposal, which also calls for boosting their catches in the off-channel areas by raising several million more hatchery smolts. The gillnetters don't buy the task force's analysis, which estimated overall economic benefits would increase once the plan is in place and they have already promised to head for the state legislature in an attempt to have the policy scuttled (see following story).

To placate their concerns, Kitzhaber sent a letter to the commission on the day of the vote that said he was committed to achieving "enhanced economic benefits for both commercial and recreational fishing interests." He pointed to $5.2 million in his next two-year budget to help pay for boosting net pen releases in off-channel areas and alternative fishing gear (which still must be OK'd by the state legislature).

Kitzhaber also said he plans to ask the legislature to establish a fund "to provide direct assistance to commercial fishing interests in transitioning to off-channel locations and/or alternative mainstem gears, as well as support payments in the event the predicted economic gains are not realized due to unforeseen errors in the economic analysis that threaten otherwise viable fishing operations prior to the Commission's ability to react through adaptive management."

Kitzhaber said the plan "will meaningfully address a longstanding social dispute," enhance both commercial and recreational fisheries, boost economic benefits to the region, "and support fish conservation and recovery."

But not only the gillnetters are calling his bluff on the fish conservation issue. Lower Columbia tribes are not happy with the reform effort. "The tribes are disappointed that the Governor of Oregon responded to political pressures and forced the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to hastily approve significant changes to the lower Columbia River fisheries," said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in a Dec. 7 statement. "They have been approved without consultation with tribal co-managers and without a complete and thoughtful analysis of the effects on the entire mainstem and ocean fisheries management system. What was approved today essentially reallocates a scarce resource with no demonstrated benefits for rebuilding naturally spawning runs. Cooperation and partnership will rebuild salmon populations, not fighting over allocation."

Some conservation groups also complained. Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society, told NW Fishletter the new rules are not designed to protect or recover ESA-listed salmonids or conserve wild stocks by making sure that "harvest management ... meets conservation responsibilities," as Kitzhaber said in his original proposal. "Consequently, and unfortunately," said Bakke, "all these rules establish is a harvest allocation while mentioning some non-specific aspiration for conservation. This problem is well documented in the history of harvest management changes going back to the 1930s and 1950s."

The proposal calls for boosting spring chinook, fall chinook and coho production in net pen areas, even though biologists have called for reducing hatchery releases in the lower Columbia to lessen adverse impacts to ESA-listed chinook stocks below Bonneville Dam.

Hatcheries in the lower river already produce 4.5 million spring chinook, 22 million fall chinook and 4.5 million coho. Researchers estimate about half of those fall chinook are consumed by terns and cormorants before they even reach the ocean.The plan would boost spring chinook net pen production by adding another 750,000 smolts to the current 1.5 million-fish annual release, bump coho production by more than 900,000 smolts. It would add another 500,000 Select Area Bright fall chinook smolts to the 1.45 million now produced for the net pen fishery in Youngs Bay.

The SAB stock originated in the Rogue River, and was transplanted to the lower Columbia to produce a brighter, more marketable fall chinook compared to local tules. But the SABs' relatively high stray rates into neighboring tributaries have had some biologists and conservation groups say they are a threat to ESA-listed local fall Chinook, mainly the small wild population in the Grays River on the Washington side.

BPA has also told the state of Oregon about its concerns that the net pen project dilutes the effectiveness of projects the power marketing agency funds, based on comments from a group called the Expert Regional Technical Group which is responsible for evaluating Salmon Benefit Units (SBUs) derived as a function of BPA-funded restoration actions in the estuary. "The ERTG has not been specific about the mechanism of this effect," said the BPA review, "but they have used the presence of SAFE as an argument to lower the score for "access" which describes the ability of fish to enter and exit a site. In the case of the Youngs Walluski project, the lower access score reduced the SBUs by roughly 15 percent."

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to discuss the task force recommendations on Dec. 15. Here are the main changes outlined in a department press release.

Prioritizing the recreational fisheries in the mainstem Columbia River and commercial fisheries in off-channel areas.

Transitioning commercial fisheries remaining in the mainstem to alternative gear, such as beach and purse seines.

Phasing out the use of gillnets by non-tribal fishers in the mainstem by 2017, while maintaining the economic viability of the commercial fishery during and after the transition.

Shifting a greater portion of current hatchery salmon releases to off-channel areas, and exploring options for expanding those areas for commercial fisheries.

Gradually increasing the catch share of salmon for the sport fishery in the mainstem over the next four years and by 2017 providing 100 percent of the summer and mainstream spring chinook harvest to the sport fishery, while increasing spring chinook opportunity for the commercial fishery in the off-channel areas.

Requiring sport anglers fishing for salmon and steelhead in the mainstem Columbia River and its tributaries to use barbless hooks beginning in 2013.

Considering catch-and-release only recreational fisheries for white sturgeon in the lower river, Washington's coast and Puget Sound, to protect lower Columbia River-origin white sturgeon. Closing non-tribal commercial fisheries for white sturgeon in the lower river and coast also would be considered as part of this effort.

Reviewing the plan during the transition to ensure objectives are being met. If necessary, changes will be made to meet the established objectives.

Related Stories
Gillnetters Gripe Over Effort to Reform Harvest by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/13/12

Bill Rudolph
Oregon Approves Changes to Lower Columbia Fisheries
NW Fishletter, December 13, 2012

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