Managers Seek Better Cooperationby Barry Espenson
Managers this week asked lower Columbia River gill-netters for better cooperation as the states of Oregon and Washington try to implement a complicated commercial fishing plan that aims to allow maximum harvest of hatchery-reared spring chinook salmon before reaching federally imposed impact limits on protected fish.
Toeing that Endangered Species Act line requires monitoring the fishing to gain data about the type of fish being netted so that those impacts can be calculated. Members of the Columbia River Compact were told Wednesday that the states' 16 observers are in numerous instances being turned away by the commercial fishers.
The rebuffs are "making it difficult to gather the data we need," Steve Williams during the Compact. Williams is the designee of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director on the Compact. Bill Tweit represents the Washington director on the panel that sets Columbia River mainstem commercial fisheries.
The observers go from boat to boat during the fisheries to witness the landing of fish and record the stock composition of that catch. The first three fisheries of the 2004 season -- two 16-hour stints and one 24-hour outing -- in mainstem waters from the confluence with the Willamette River down to the Columbia mouth -- have taken place over the past two weeks.
The nets target fin-clipped Willamette River and other lower river hatchery chinook with incidental catch of marketable sturgeon and shad. They must release unmarked chinook and all steelhead. Portions of the spring chinook and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The combined sport and non-Indian impact on steelhead and the upriver spring chinook stocks, which do not include the Willamettte chinook, can not exceed 2 percent. In addition, the commercial fleet can only exact 0.8 percent of the 2 percent non-Indian impacts on upriver spring chinook. That stock includes listed Snake River and Upper Columbia fish.
Information collected by the on-boat observers, as well as data collected onshore and during test fisheries, is intended to tell fishery managers the composition of the fish stocks in the river.
The data guides managers as they shift strategies in an attempt to minimize the impacts.
"It is what is allowing us to have these fisheries. I hope everyone will continue to cooperate," Williams said. He had been told that observers had at several locations on the lower river not been allowed to board the fishing vessels. Williams said that he realized at times the denials are being made because of safety concerns or for other legitimate reasons, but he and Tweit made a plea for help.
The WDFW's Cindy LeFleur told the compact that she was hearing similar stories from observers on the Washington side of the river, though it seemed to be fishers in one particular stretch of the river. Tweit said that the lack of data from particular areas could bias calculations of the overall impacts and, potentially, cause closures in certain areas.
The most recent fishery indicates that runs expected to number 360,700 upriver and 109,400 Willamette spring chinook have barely begun. The commercial fleet caught 611 spring chinook "keepers" and 75 white sturgeon during a 24-hour fishery that began at 5 a.m. Tuesday.
A bright spot for the fishers is the fact the early deliveries are fetching $5.50 per pound from buyers. The total kept chinook catch for the three fisheries is 1,177 out of what could be an 18,000 fish harvest if the projected runs materialize and the impacts are held down.
They released 191 unmarked chinook, including 61 believed to be unmarked upriver fish, during the most recent ouoting. They also caught and released 242 steelhead, of which 159 were wild.
ODFW and WDFW estimate that the gill-netters have made only a small dent in their impacts -- 0.033percent for upriver spring chinook and 0.147 for wild winter steelhead. That amounts to only 4 percent of the commercial fleet's 0.8 percent upriver impact allocation and 7 percent of the 2 percent steelhead impact allowance.
The initial three fisheries, and a 24-hour fishery approved Wednesday that began at 10 a.m. Thursday, require the use of nets with 9-inch mesh or greater. It is theorized that the large mesh allows most of the smaller steelhead to swim through while the chinook become gilled. Managers estimate that the mortality steelhead caught and released from larger mesh nets is 30 percent. The mortality rate for released chinook is 40 percent.
The large mesh nets are deployed early as an attempt to catch as many of the Willamette chinook, which normally return to the river earlier than the upriver fish, while avoiding steelhead impacts.
Once data from observers and from weekly test fisheries begins to show that the upriver chinook are heading upriver in large numbers, the managers have said they will likely require the use of 4 ¼-inch-mesh "tangle" nets. The smaller mesh results in a greater steelhead catch or encounter rate. But it causes less damage to the fish so a higher percentage of the released steelhead and upriver chinook survive to spawn. An 18.5 percent mortality rate is being used this year to calculate impacts for both steelhead and chinook released from tangle nets.
A lack of fish so far is just one of the problems faced by the fishers. Those testifying at recent Compact meetings say that the larger-mesh, heavier, multi-strand nets are more easily avoided by fish during the daylight hours, thus reducing catch efficiency. They also think some of the salmon are also wriggling through.
"We think with the nine-inch we're giving up a lot of small salmon," said Jim Wells, a commercial fisher representing Salmon for All at the hearing. He asked for a test of 8-inch mesh, the fishers preferred gear, to see if its use would greatly increase the steelhead encounter rate.
He said his catch averaged about 20 pounds per fish, larger than in past years.
ODFW biologist Kevleen Melcher told the Compact that the overall catch this year was averaging 18.5 pounds, "very similar to what it is normally with 8-inch nets, which is 18 pounds."
The Compact agreed Wednesday to proceed with the same gear and fishing area restrictions as those first three periods.
"Is there anything you think is changing rapidly, or in flux, right now," that might suggest the need for a change, Tweit asked Melcher.
She said that the steelhead handle rate "is stable, it's not increasing." That likely means the run has not started to build toward a peak that normally occurs in late March. In 2002, -- a year when the gill-netters inadvertently caused a 6 to 15 percent impact on the wild run -- the run peaked around March 14, Melcher said. The number of upriver chinook has been slowly increasing in recent days and is likely to pick up soon.
"We're right here on the bubble looking into next week," Williams said of the need potentially to shift management strategies. Through March 7, only 51 spring chinook had been counted at Bonneville Dam. The upriver stocks are those from hatcheries and spawning grounds upstream of the dam. Spring chinook primarily enter the lower river during March and April with upriver stock abundance peaking during late March to early April, according to a joint staff report.
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