Agencies Seek Continued Fundingby Barry Espenson
Representatives of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife this week cited financial and biological uncertainty in a plea for continued funding for their experimentation with live capture commercial fishing gear -- so called tangle nets.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council in June recommended against further funding for the tangle net evaluation. The states had requested about $900,000 per year to continue the study. A staff memo advising the Council said that, after three years, it is time for the states to take over funding responsibility.
"The staff believes that, having proven the functionality of the gear, the obligation to fund the enforcement and monitoring of the fishery shifts to the state management entities," according to the June 6 memo. The Council did leave a glimmer of hope, asking for justification for a portion of the study designed to evaluate steelhead survival rates following their release from the nets. The overall project was in a second priority grouping of projects that the Bonneville Power Administration wants funded to satisfy Endangered Species Act biological opinion requirements.
The Council at its June meeting recommended that $31 million worth of fish and wildlife research and administrative work be funded through its mainstem/systemwide category. The $31 million represents that category's share of the overall $139 million budget for the Columbia Basin fish and wildlife program.
Those recommendations are now being considered by BPA, which funds the program as mitigation for fish and wildlife impacts caused by the construction and operation of the federal hydrosystem.
More than $25 million worth of projects that the Council recommended for funding match with projects that Bonneville officials say they favor. But the Council list left off several projects that BPA categorized as "tier 1" -- necessary to satisfy its ESA obligatations. Likewise, the BPA lists omitted projects that the Council said it wants funded.
The tangle net project was in a BPA tier 2 that the federal agency said it would like to see funded if money becomes available. NPCC and Bonnville staff are now negotiating what work would be funded with the $6 million available under the spending cap.
The Council's June decisions drew considerable response.
"This particular one has a lot of public interest," said Washington Councilor Larry Cassidy.
The experimentation is designed to solve at least in part a fishing dilemma -- how to commercially catch a share of the hundreds of thousands of hatchery fish that return to the river each year without seriously impacting the ESA listed wild fish that swim among them. The traditional large-mesh gill-nets mortally gill or wedge the fish around the body. The smaller-mesh tangle nets have thus far proven to tangle the big salmon's teeth or jaws in a relatively benign manner, allowing a sorting in which unmarked wild fish are released and fin-clipped hatchery fish are kept and sold.
"The traditional gear harvests them all at the same rate," said Bill Tweit of the WDFW. That hinders commercial fishers' ability to cash in on the hatchery production intended for them and sport anglers to share.
Because of ESA impacts, selective harvest is necessary, "otherwise putting them out for harvest doesn't do you a whole lot of good." Tweit stressed that the lessons being learned through the experimental full fleet fishery will be applicable elsewhere, not just in the lower Columbia mainstem waters that the states share.
Tweit and the ODFW's Steve King said the states are strapped for funding. So is the commercial fishing industry, which has had limited opportunity over the past decade and more because of ESA restrictions and, until the past few years, poor salmon returns.
"It's currently not a vibrant industry," Tweit said of the potential for commercial fishers chipping in for the study.
The state agencies say continued research is essential. Estimates of the mortality caused by the tangle nets varied widely during past studies -- 10 percent one year and 30 percent the next. More years of study are needed to fine-tune those mortality estimates, which are used to determine the impacts on listed fish. In 2002 a 10 percent assumption was used. This past year state fish managers assumed a 25 percent mortality, essentially cutting the available harvest in half because impact limits were quickly breached.
The state officials also say at least three years of data is necessary to determine mortality of steelhead caught in the nets. Commercial fishermen must release all steelhead that are caught in their nets. The steelhead, which also have listed components, are designated as a sport-only fish.
The states, with Tweit and King convening as the Columbia River Compact, launched the project in 2001 as a pilot study with 20 fishing boats permitted to pursue spring chinook salmon on the lower mainstem.
The fishery was expanded, allowing the full fleet to participate, largely using nets with 5 ½ mesh. The fishery also required special training for the fishers that emphasized fish handling techniques. The regulations also require the use of so-called "live" or recovery boxes where the unmarked fish that are pulled from the nets could rest and revive, if necessary, before their released. Fishers also had to use nets that are shorter in length and pull their nets more often than they had traditionally -- both measures to reduce the amount of time the fish are tangled in the nets.
The 2002 fisher resulted in a harvest of 14,500 fish -- the largest commercial spring chinook harvest in more than two decades. The fishery caused problems, however, with an unexpected and "unacceptable" large impact on winter steelhead -- a total of 20,900 were handled, including 12,400 unmarked fish. Overall impacts on the steelhead population's progress toward recovery are believed minimal because the run was the largest in 30 years, King said.
The fishers were required to equip themselves, at a cost of about $2,000 per net, with 4 ¼-inch mesh for the 2003 spring chinook fishery. The downsized mesh proved effective in reducing the gilling and wedging of steelhead.
The 2003 fishery resulted in a catch of only 5,667 despite a relatively bountiful return. The commercial boats kept and sold 3, 127 of those fish and released the fish. The fishery was limited in large part because of the high mortality assumption, and because the closely protected upriver portion of the run arrived unexpectedly early and charged into the nets. Impact limits were reached after only 3 days of fishing.
King predicted that the 2004 upriver spring chinook adult return could well number 250,000 fish, better even that this year's run of more than 208,000. Coupled with an anticipated strong Willamette River return, it should be a very good year.
"We need to access those fish," King said.
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