Unusual Fish Mixby Barry Espenson
One after another, lower Columbia River commercial fishers trooped to the microphone to describe the effects of state and federal rules they say are preventing their industry from capitalizing on what is expected to be a bumper crop of returning spring chinook salmon.
Most recently it is an unusual mix of fish in the river that is keeping the nets out of the water.
In what fishery managers considered an equitable sharing of available spring chinook stocks between sport and commercial fishers, the commercial fishers are supposed to target Willamette River spring chinook early in the season to minimize their impact on the upriver run, which includes Snake River and Upper Columbia stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Given the current estimates of run size, the allowable "impacts" on upriver fish are weighted in favor of the sport fishery in the lower Columbia River. Out of an allowable 2 percent non-tribal impact, the sport fishery gets 1.11 percent and the commercial get .59 percent out an upriver run expected to come in 145,400 strong -- the fourth largest run since 1973. Three-tenths of a percent is reserved as a buffer and for upriver fisheries. The lower Columbia treaty tribes are allowed a 9 percent impact on the mainstem above Bonneville dam.
Unfortunately, the fish have not cooperated this year. Normally the Willamette fish arrive and peak earlier, but this year the upriver fish have, for the most part been present in equal or greater numbers in the lower river during late February and early March. When commercial fisheries on Feb. 17 and 19 targeted Willamette spring chinook, they brought in more than three times as many upriver fish. Harvested were 365 upriver fish and 106 Willamette fish. Only marked hatchery fish can be kept. Unmarked fish, regardless of whether they are of hatchery or wild origin, must be released, as must all steelhead that are found in the nets.
The commercial fishers released 556 unmarked fish during those two days, half of which were assumed by state officials to have died because of stress and injury from the 8-inch mesh gill nets used during those two periods.
Because of the high assumed mortality rate, and because more of the upriver fish were caught, the impacts mounted quickly. After only two days of fishing and 506 fish sold, the commercial fishers had eaten up more than half, .305 percent, of their allowable impacts.
The commercial fishers were expected to be able to catch and sell as many as 17,500 surplus Willamette hatchery spring chinook -- as well as some marked upriver fish. Only about half of the upriver fish are fin-clipped, a much lower mark rate than that of the Willamette run. The overall Willamette run is expected to be 109,800 -- which would be the second largest since 1991. That first fishery, planned for a time when the Willamette fish normally far outnumber the upriver fish, was expected to run for six days but the final four days were canceled.
The states of Oregon and Washington on Tuesday offered commercial fishers two choices -- a one-day fishery for March 10 that has the potential to eat up all of the remaining impacts for a harvest of 1,000 fish, or another delay.
Representatives of the two states' fish and wildlife department directors convene as the Columbia River Compact to set mainstem commercial season. The one-day fishing period structured by department staff was called a "worst case scenario," because the catch numbers and predicted upriver impacts were based on stock composition estimates made after a test fishery this past Monday.
The six boats piloted by volunteer commercial fishermen, using 4 1/4-inch nets that are less harmful to the chinook but less efficient at catching them, spread their nets for 21 "drifts" at various locations in the lower river. The catch was still 75 percent upriver fish, slightly down from the 78 and 85 percent totals from two-day fishery but high enough to pile up the impacts if the full fleet is launched. The states are using long-term mortality estimates for the smaller mesh nets of 25 percent for the released fish. All of the fish caught in the test fishery were released.
Fishery officials expect more Willamette fish to return to the river as the days go by so the March 10 upriver impact would likely be lesser than the prediction based on stock composition from a week earlier.
"This is very, very top end," the ODFW's Patrick Frazier said of the planned fisheries predicted impacts. "We did it to ensure we did not exceed any limits."
The WDFW's Compact representative, Bill Tweit, asked if it was conceivable that the catch and impact predictions would be realized during the one-day fishery -- effectively shutting down the commercial season after a catch of only about 1,500 fish. The staff calculation is that the fishery could net 2,200 fish of which 1,200 would have to be released. Frazier said he said reluctant to predict when Willamette numbers will grow, since expectations to this point have all been in error.
"This is an extremely unpredictable and volatile run," Frazier said. The Compact, Tweit and ODFW's Steve King, ultimately sided with the majority of the more than 20 fishers and lower river business owners that testified Tuesday. The Compact opted against the proposed one-day fishery. Instead another test fishery is planned Monday to ascertain the run composition.
If the ratio of Willamette to upriver fish grows, a fishery could be planned for the end of the week. The Willamette fish were expected to dominate the run in late February and early to mid-March. The bulk of the commercial catch in the river from its mouth to its confluence with the Willamette was anticipated during that time. The upriver run normally picks up steam later in March and ultimately peaks in early April. Fishery officials anticipated shutting down commercial harvest in late March at a time when the winter steelhead run is normally at its peak. There is also a 2 percent non-tribal impact allowed on steelhead, which includes listed components.
"That leaves a window of time over the next 14 to 20 days," to try maximize the commercial catch, King said. Some fisheries could also be planned in late April or early May if impacts remain. A higher percentage of Willamette chinook, as compared to upriver, would allow the gill netters to catch more fish with less impact on the upriver run.
Much of the testimony from the commercial fishers focused on economics and rules they feel have been changed to their disadvantage.
The commercial fleet last year in an initial full-fleet test of smaller mesh nets kept 14,238 spring chinook and released 14,489 in what was the largest commercial spring chinook harvest since the 1970s. The total harvest included 8,237 Willamette and 5,242 upriver fish. The returns last year were larger than this year's projection -- 121,700 Willamette and 295,100 upriver chinook.
An interim management agreement between the states and endorsed by federal fishery agencies for 2001-2003 fisheries denoted a 10 percent mortality rate for chinook released from the smaller mesh nets. But survival studies showed long-term mortality rates of 11.9 percent in 2001 in a test fishery and 32.2 percent in 2002. The Technical Advisory Committee recommended that the chinook mortality rate be set at 25 percent, slightly above the midpoint between the wide range of results from the two years' studies. NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency in charge of protecting listed fish, has also endorsed the 25 percent mortality rate.
The Compact is following that recommendation, something that vexes the fishermen.
"The ground rules have changed. I don't think it's a deal any more," Astoria's Jim Wells, a commercial fisherman and representative of Salmon for All. The apportionment of fish between the sport and commercial interests was made, in the agreement, with a 10-percent long-term mortality calculation. The new 25 percent calculation has the potential to cut the netters' take from 14,000 last year to only 1,500 this year, he said.
Several of those testifying charged that the mortality studies were poorly designed and carried out.
"You're using statistics that are holding us back that have a lot of holes in them," said Gary Soderstrom of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. He and others suggested the mortality be dropped again to 10 percent in accordance with the agreement. Tweit and King, while admitted the studies had their flaws, defended the shift, saying the data is the best that is available until additional years of data come in.
"That takes away 20,000 fish" that otherwise could have been harvested and that are surplus to the needs of hatcheries, said fisherman Chris Heuker said.
Oliver Waldron, also of Salmon for All, said those fish would have translated into an economic boon of about $12 million for the lower river communities. The value of those fish off the dock is about $2 million. The processers, support services and businesses, restaurants and others businesses serve to multiply the economic effects.
"This is basically the last fishery we have on the mainstem that is worth anything," said Alex Johnson, a third-generation fisherman. The fishermen can get $5 to $6 dollars per pound from wholesale buyers early in the season. By comparison, fall chinook prices last year fell in many cases below $1.
Last year's fishery gave coast communities a lift.
"It comes at a time of the year that is slow for our business," said Kurt Englund of Englund Marine Supply. He estimated that the past two years' spring fisheries have resulted in $1 million in business for his family's chain of stores to provide recovery boxes that are used on the boats to enliven fish before their release, the new, smaller mesh nets and other gear. With the fishery down this year, Englund said he fears fishermen will not be able to afford to pay bills compiled for that gear.
Englund said he, like many others, do not have the time to catch their own so the tight restrictions also prevent consumer access to the bountiful supply of fish, he said.
There are 10 million consumers in Washington and Oregon, said Frances Clark.
"They should be allowed to buy this wonderful fish" at stores and restaurants, she said.
Several of the fishers suggested that the Compact shift the mortality estimate from 25 to 10 percent so that more fish could be caught -- and both kept and released. Others, like Steve Fish of Salmon for All, said the commercial fishers should be allowed a bigger share of the overall 2 percent impact limit.
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