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Commercial Fishermen Not Happy with
Proposed Upriver Chinook Harvest Allocation

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2008

Commercial fishermen left a Vancouver, Wash., meeting room Monday embittered about their prospects for harvesting upriver Columbia/Snake spring chinook salmon next year.

The likely scenario is that the gill-net fleet will be allocated 30 percent of the allowed mainstem "impacts" on the upriver run as compared to 70 percent for sport fishers, according to a proposal developed by a panel of Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissioners and staff.

If the proposed strategy had been implemented this year, anglers could have hauled in more than 18,000 upriver spring chinook and the gill-netters 3,700 during the period before the run size forecast is updated. The first update is typically produced when fishery officials feel about half of the run has passed Bonneville Dam on their way upstream.

"With this decision I think you're going to put a lot of people out of work," Astoria, Ore.,'s Bruce Buckmaster told the panel.

The 2008 spring mainstem fishing recommendation will now be forwarded to the full Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions. A joint session is planned Dec. 11 to discuss the proposal. Each commission could then adopt the proposal as early as their December meetings.

A new bi-state advisory group was created at summer's end by the commissions in an attempt to settle early the often contentious apportioning of lower Columbia spring and summer chinook salmon harvests between sport and commercial interests. The panel's voting members are three Oregon and three Washington commissioners. Its goal was to develop a joint fishery management strategy.

The six commissioners decided that the highest priority in springtime is to give sport fishers a "high probability" of a season that is at least 45 days long, Oregon Commissioner Dan Edge told those gathered in Vancouver.

Non-tribal mainstem sport and commercial fishers are allowed a combined impact on the returning spring chinook that are bound for hatcheries and tributaries above Bonneville Dam, which is located 146 miles from the Columbia's mouth. In recent years the impact limit has been 2 percent. The limits are intended to control impacts on wild Snake River spring/summer and Upper Columbia spring chinook that are listed under the Endangered Species.

This year the two commissions agreed at the 11th hour – mid-February -- on a plan that allocated about 61 percent of the allowed 2 percent spring chinook impact rate to the recreational fishery and 39 percent to the commercial fishery, which has seen its share steadily shrink. For the previous three years the goal was to allocate 57 percent of the incidental impacts on wild, unmarked fish to the sport fishery and 43 percent to the commercial fishery.

A second goal of the panel is to develop a multi-year strategy.

Buckmaster, one of the non-voting citizen advisers to the panel, said adoption of the strategy would put the states at the "tipping point" of statutory compliance. Both states' laws pledge to provide fisheries for recreational and commercial fishers.

"I'd hate to see it go into another realm – the judicial system," Oregon Commissioner Jon Englund said. If the six-member panel took a vote, it apparently was not unanimous. The final decision was made behind closed doors.

"This isn't pretty, and if it's rural against metro areas, so be it. I'm very disappointed" with the decision, Englund said. Most commercial fishers are based in lower river towns, as is much of the fish processing. The Portland-Vancouver residents represent a large share of the mainstem fishers.

Both groups tout their industries' economic benefits to the region.

"We knew we weren't going to please everyone," said Washington Commissioner Jerry Gutzwiler. "We've got a finite resource and a big appetite for it."

The recommendation is "what we feel is the best approach in the short-term," Gutzwiler said.

He said Oregon is dedicated to "growing the SAFE areas" to better feed the commercial fishing industry. So-called select areas are off-channel sites where juvenile salmon receive their final rearing. When they return from the ocean as adults they home in on the select areas where they are released and where few wild salmon stray.

Oregon officials have said they plan to expand SAFE production so there will be more fish for the gill-netters to harvest in areas were few listed fish will be snared in the gill-nets.

Astoria's Irene Martin told the panel that a 60-40 split "wasn't equitable" but a ratio that commercial fishermen considered a minimum standard. The proposal's "base" 65-35 allocation is not acceptable or equitable.

"You said you've got to be more selective," Martin said of the states' insistence in recent years that the commercial fishers buy and use smaller mesh "tangle" nets and other gear. The smaller mesh nets are less harmful to the fish and allow higher survival -- compared to larger mesh gill-nets -- of unmarked wild salmon that must be returned to the river.

"Well, they did, and now you take more away," Martin said.

Neither faction is particularly pleased with the prospects for spring chinook fishing next year. The allocations are based on a matrix that weighs the forecast return of upriver and Willamette spring chinook salmon. When both forecasts are for very high returns, the commercial fishery gets something closer to an even split – 45 percent as compared to the anglers' 55 percent. If both forecasts were for very low returns, the allocation would be 85-15 with anglers getting the lion's share.

A predicted very low return of Willamette River spring chinook next year changes the allocation formula from the base 65-35 to 70 percent for anglers and 30 percent for the gill-netters.

"It's going to be worse than last year," Curt Melcher, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said of the expected Willamette return. Only 14,151 adult spring chinook were counted climbing Willamette Falls fish ladders just above Portland. Another 4,500 had been caught by anglers in the lower Willamette and about 200 were landed in the Columbia mainstem during a time-limited fishery in the lower river.

The Willamette Falls "jack" count was the third lowest on record. The sizes of those 3-year-old returns are a signal of the potential size of the next year's 4-year-old class.

Melcher said the lower Willamette fishery could well be closed to spring chinook retention, as could the lower Columbia from its confluence with the Willamette down to the ocean.

Given the projected size of the 2009 returns, both the mainstem sport and commercial fisheries would be allowed to incur only 65 percent of their allowed before the preseason forecast is updated, most likely in early May. That leaves a 35 percent buffer in case the runs aren't as strong as forecast. Fishers would be able to burn any remaining impacts once fisheries managers have an updated forecast.

The work group's voting members include Gary Douvia, Conrad Mahnken and Gutzwiler of the WFWC and Skip Klarquist, Englund and Edge of the OFWC.

Non-voting representatives from the WDFW are Phil Anderson, deputy director, and Southwest Region Director Guy Norman. Non-voting representatives from the ODFW are Melcher and Steve Williams, ODFW fish division deputy director.

Four Oregon advisers were chosen to serve on the group. They are:

Oregon citizen advisers are:

Commercial Fishermen Not Happy with Proposed Upriver Chinook Harvest Allocation
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2008

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