Sept. 13 Daily News editorial
For decades, sport and commercial fishermen have sparred over how many Columbia River salmon and sturgeon each group should get. The balance of power in the conflict appears to be changing, however. It's likely sport fishermen — but not fish or the general public that buys them — will be the winners.
For years, sport fishermen have grumbled about their share of the catch, but they weren't as well-organized as the gillnetters. That changed when the Coastal Conservation Association, which has been successful in advancing sport fishing positions in other parts of the country, opened up a Northwest campaign in 2007.
Thousands of sport anglers have more political clout than the approximately 150 gillnetters who work in Oregon.
Earlier this year, the CCA and several other sport fishing and conservation organizations teamed up to gather signatures on Oregon Measure 81, which will be on the November ballot. If passed, it will ban the use of gillnets in Oregon.
Last month, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber suggested what might appear to be a compromise. Kitzhaber wants to shift the gillnetters to off-channel areas such as Youngs Bay near Astoria — an idea that's been floating around for several years — rather than ban them completely.
This week, the CCA threw its support behind Kitzhaber's plan and said it would end its support for Measure 81. Kitzhaber's plan accomplishes most of what the CCA wants by allocating the great majority of the Columbia River to sport fishers — but the governor's plan has some major deficiencies.
It assumes that hatchery production will be increased to provide more fish for the gillnetters, though much of the funding for hatcheries comes from the federal government, not the states. Kitzhaber's plan also contradicts a major trend in fisheries management toward cutting back on hatchery production because those fish compete with the runs of endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia. If gillnetting were eliminated, hatcheries might have to reduce their output (and opportunities for sport fishermen) to comply with the complicated formulas used to protect wild fish.
Commercial fishermen also point out that the off-channel areas aren't big enough for all the gillnet boats that work the river now. They view the governor's plan as a death knell for their industry, along with the more restrictive Measure 81.
We oppose Measure 81 for several reasons. Commercial fishermen are among the strongest advocates for fish, naturally, as their livelihood depends on them. The measure doesn't do anything to improve fish runs; it just changes who gets to kill and claim the fish. And, as the gillnetters' organization name — Salmon for All — indicates, they catch fish for people who don't care to do so themselves or don't have the time.
Kitzhaber's plan doesn't strike us as much better than Measure 81, though it does phase in the shift of commercial fishing off the main stem over three years.
We would have preferred a more orderly process, but the sport anglers have gotten tired of waiting after years of study of possible alternatives to gillnets.
Because 70 percent of the lower Columbia River is in Oregon, that state's regulations have a major effect on the river, which at this point is jointly managed with Washington. Separate regulations on different sides of the river would be difficult to enforce.
Washington's fishery managers haven't endorsed Kitzhaber's proposal, though discussions are under way. We hope the states can agree on a joint plan — this fight over fish isn't going to drift away.