Columbia Salmon Season
by Mike Stahlberg
Sixty-five year-old Roy Niemi of Astoria hadn't written a letter since high school.
"So I hope you realize how very important this issue is to me" Niemi said in a laboriously hand-printed note mailed to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.
"This issue" motivating Niemi's correspondence was the setting of 2008 spring chinook salmon regulations for the Columbia River. Niemi wanted the commission to allow at least some semblance of a season on the lower river.
"I understand that the Willamette run is weak, so I realize sport fishing below the I-5 Bridge (in Portland) will be curtailed," Niemi said.
Allowing fishing two days per week, with a bag limit of one salmon per day until the quota is filled, would be "fair," he suggested.
It looks like Niemi's plea went for naught, although he still has a glimmer of hope.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to close the Columbia River channel downstream of the I-5 Bridge to salmon fishing this spring, while allowing liberal sport and commercial seasons upriver of the I-5 Bridge.
However, The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission - which shares management responsibility for the Columbia River fishery - took a more traditional approach and simply allocated sport anglers a larger percentage of the allowable catch, with no restrictions on where fishing is allowed.
By a 5-3 vote Friday, Washington commissioners allocated 65 percent of the incidental mortality on wild spring chinook salmon to the recreational fishery and 35 percent to the commercial fleet. Last year, gillnetters were given a 43 percent share.
It will now be up to the directors of the two state agencies to agree on common rules for the river. Negotiations must be completed by Friday, when the 2008 regulations have to be finalized.
The Oregon Commission's vote in favor of closing the river downstream of Portland while opening the upper river is unprecedented.
The move was prompted by the fact this year's Willamette River chinook run is expected to number only 34,000 fish - one of the lowest totals on record.
On the other hand, the "upriver" chinook run bound for Bonneville Dam and beyond is thriving - a run of 239,000 fish is forecast.
No one knows what caused such disparity in the health of two salmon stocks that share the same route to and from the Pacific Ocean.
Prohibiting fishing until after the two commingled runs had a chance to segregate themselves affords maximum protection for the Willamette population. It makes sense, but is obviously more important to Oregon than Washington.
Closing the lower river would also make the best out of a bad situation for anglers in the southern Willamette Valley, where fishing for spring chinook is popular in the Santiam, McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette Rivers.
However, establishment of an angling deadline at Portland creates its own set of problems, including forcing commercial fishermen to set their nets in an area already crowded with sport anglers - and likely to be more so if downriver residents bring their boats up to Portland.
Oregon's commission tried to deal with this problem by allowing sport fishing six days per week in the Portland-to- Bonneville Dam stretch. On the seventh day, recreational anglers will rest while the commercial fleet nets.
Commissioners did allow a seven-day a week sport fishing season in the Willamette River.
As Astoria angler Niemi wrote, "gas prices and the fatigue of traveling" would limit the amount of fishing he could do if the lower Columbia were closed. "But when I did go, it would be to the Multnomah Channel and the weaker run."
With nets not allowed in the Willamette, however, sport anglers will release un-finclipped salmon with a much lower mortality rate for wild fish than normally occurs in the lower Columbia, with its commercial netting.
Also, Willamette waters generally do not see any of the Snake River-bound salmon, whose Endangered Species status is behind most of the regulatory machinations on the Columbia.
Of course, fishery managers could accomplish almost the same thing by following the suggestion of another letter writer, Frank Amato, publisher of numerous fishing magazines and books.
Amato urged the commission to permit sport angling with barbless lures (no bait) below the I-5 Bridge.
That would minimize mortality on wild fish while maximizing the sport fishing access, he said.
It wouldn't be a bad compromise, even though it could result in some restrictions being placed on fishing in the Willamette River below Oregon City.
The most important thing is to make sure any commercial harvest in the main stem Columbia comes after Willamette-bound spring chinook have had a chance to return to their home waters.
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