All Tangled in the Nets on the Columbia
by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, April 11, 2009
Threatened salmon are dying, sportfishing is crimped and an outdoor retail chain goes belly up
It stinks what passes for salmon harvest policy on the Columbia River. Everyone smells it -- lawmakers, gill-netters, sport fishermen, fish commissioners -- but all the Northwest has done is hold its collective nose.
Here's what's going on: Oregon and Washington still allow gill nets, the least selective way to fish, in the main stem of the Columbia River. The gill-netters can't help but catch and kill threatened species of salmon and steelhead. This incidental take of federally protected fish forces the curtailment of sportfishing, gutting a major Northwest industry. Guides, boat dealers and tackle manufacturers are hurting; just this week one of the region's largest retailers of fishing equipment, Joe's Sports, Outdoor & More, went out of business.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of hatchery salmon roll upriver, flooding into spawning areas and interfering with the recovery of the threatened wild species of salmon and steelhead.
All of this makes no sense, none, yet it keeps going on. The gill-netters, backed by the seafood processors and restaurants they supply, have spent decades now locked in a fierce dispute with sport fishermen over the relative share of fish that each side is allowed to harvest. This tug of war has so poisoned river policy that both sides cannot recognize that their stubborn stances are hurting them both, and damaging wild salmon.
There are better ways. Two proposals in the Oregon Legislature, if properly implemented, promise more salmon, not fewer, to commercial gill-netters and sport fishermen. Both would help wild salmon recovery by protecting threatened fish from nonselective harvest, and ramp up harvest of hatchery fish, reducing the competition in spawning areas.
One proposal, House Bill 2734, the so-called "SAFE for Salmon" plan, would move gill-netters into off-channel commercial fishing zones. The idea is to accelerate and expand the hatchery practice of taking salmon smolts to bays and side channels, where the young fish imprint and return as adult salmon. Gill-netters already are taking a substantial portion of their fish in these zones -- which are not frequented by wild salmon.
A second proposal, House Bill 2579, would legalize the use of seines and traps on the lower Columbia. The idea is, over time, to transition commercial fishermen from gill-nets, which kill a high percentage of the wild salmon they snare, to seine nets and traps that allow protected fish to be sorted and sent upriver unharmed.
Down in Salem, these are seen as competing bills. Legislators seem confused by their choices and tempted to call for "more study," pushing salmon harvest issues off for another year or two. In fact, the bills are compatible. Lawmakers ought to approve them both and give fish managers the tools they need to better manage salmon on the Columbia.
Commercial gill-netters fear being pinned to the shallow bays of the river, and question whether the hatchery fish promised in the SAFE plan would truly be forthcoming. They also are reluctant to swap out their gill-net gear for costly seine nets or other equipment. Lawmakers should strengthen both bills to address their concerns.
There is room now, and always will be, for commercial salmon fishing on the Columbia River, if properly managed. Ultimately, though, gill-nets must be moved out of the main stem of the river. If it ever made sense to allow nonselective fishing on threatened salmon and steelhead, then kick everybody off the river while hatchery fish surge upstream, it doesn't any longer. All it does now is stink.
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