A crucial vote regarding gillnets will be taken by the full Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission at a meeting on June 6-7 in Salem. It will determine whether the alterations suggested by the joint-state task force will be adopted.
The controversy has both sides digging into entrenched positions, and has drawn action from the Washington Legislature. Former Washington commissioners and fisheries scientists have also weighed in with a letter to the legislature, and groups that oppose or endorse the changes have rallied the troops.
The Columbia River reforms, as enacted in 2013, are to “Allow for orderly fisheries, advance the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, and maintain or enhance the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry in the state.”
The policy also seeks to “phase out the use of non-tribal commercial fisheries in the mainstem Columbia River, and transition gill net use to off-channel areas.”
Commercial fishermen, and their allies, have decried the policy as a failure, pointing to no benefit derived from the buy-back program, the alternative gears program, and the lack of additional places to be used as SAFE areas.
Recreational anglers say the policy was not enacted in good faith, and the lack of benefit comes from a lack of effort on the part of fisheries managers, not a failure of the policy.
“There were lots of things that they could do within the Columbia River reforms that would help the commercial fishery,” said Larry Cassidy of Vancouver. “None of those have been addressed. The buy-back program was never initiated with the legislature, and the money for buying seines? Never undertaken.”
Proponents of the policy rollbacks have stated that the adaptive management built into the plan allows for just the kind of changes being enacted, which included putting off the final removal of gillnets in the main stem Columbia for at least one more year.
Washington Commissioner Don McIsaac voted in favor of changing the policy, and has taken some heat over that vote. In a recent interview he spoke to sections within the policy that address adaptive management.
The policy reads that it “May be modified as necessary to meet the stated purpose of the policy.”
“We are supposed to try to modify the policy to maintain the commercial fishery,” he said, pointing to figures that show the commercial fishery was not fully sustained. “We are not achieving this purpose.”
Hobe Kytr of Salmon For All, a commercial fishing advocate group, is also of the mind that the policy has failed the commercial fishermen.
“You can’t raise enough fish in those off-channel areas to replace access to the Columbia river mainstem for the commercial fishery,” said Kytr.
Pushback against the changes to the reforms has not just come from sport fishermen and their interests. The Washington legislature has responded, and a non-tribal gill net phase-out bill has been introduced.
Meanwhile, the governors of both Oregon and Washington have expressed support for the original reforms.
A letter to Brad Smith of the WFWC, dated October 28, 2015, and signed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee reads, in part: “In light of the growing social and economic contribution of the recreational fishery. … The Commission should fully implement the policy (3620) recently adopted and seek ways to expand public access to the recreational fishery.”
Liz Hamilton, the Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry association, recently released a statement that addresses the letter, and the governors silence on the issue.
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“The WDFW Commission has violated fundamental policies outlined in Governor Jay Inslee’s letter to the Commission, in which he pointed to the economic contributions of recreational fishing licenses sold in Washington and supported expanding recreational fishing,” said Hamilton.
“He further instructed the Commission to promote mark selective fisheries and scientifically credible hatchery practices, while considering economics. Governor Inslee, who has built a reputation on following science, has to be incredibly chagrined at the really unfortunate timing for his commission to turn their backs on science and economics as fish runs and orcas are struggling to recover.”
Governor Kate Brown has voiced support for keeping the reforms, writing in an email: “I remain supportive of the Columbia River reforms. Moreover, legislative leadership is paying close attention to the lower Columbia fishery and whether the legislative intent of the reforms is reflected in the policies adopted by the Commission.”
Commissioner McIsaac has become frustrated with the amount of misinformation that has circulated recently, pointing to the argument that the changes to the reforms will affect orcas.
“This talk about it hurting orcas is completely false,” he said. “Once that fish goes over the bar, nothing that fish does will affect killer whales.”
“There won’t be one additional spawner anywhere in the Columbia,” said McIsaac. “Whether there is a gillnet fishery, whether it is 30 percent, 20 percent, or zero, 100 percent of those impacts would be allocated to the sport fishery so it can go as long as it can.”
He further stated that gill nets are a good way to round up hatchery fish, and keep them off the spawning grounds.
However, Hamilton disagrees.
“Gillnetting is the most destructive, the most irresponsible way to round up hatchery fish,” she said.
Among the grumblings, legislative actions, and fighting over the policy, is there the possibility of another voter initiative, similar to measure 81, the anti-gillnet ban put forward by the Coastal Conservation Association in 2012?
“I think that option is always on the table,” said Nello Picinich of the local CCA chapter.
“However, our first concern is getting sport fishermen to contact their legislature and the governors and let them know you are not happy,” he added.
Picinich believes the failure of the plan was a result of stonewalling by the commercial interests, and the inaction concerning the aspects of the policy that were not implemented fully.
Hamilton agrees with Picinich.
“The failure was with how the policy was enacted, not the policy itself,” she said.
Tensions between the two camps has exposed some biased opinions, according to McIsaac. He believes there is a segment of sport fishermen that are simply opposed to gill netting, and any other way to commercially harvest salmon.
“Some people that just don’t like commercial fishing, that’s my opinion,” he said.