OLYMPIA — The most widespread changes to Columbia River salmon fisheries in decades will be phased in starting this year.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission on Saturday unanimously approved a plan that gradually will move non-tribal gillnet commercial fishermen off the main stem of the Columbia into side channels stocked with more hatchery salmon. Commercial fishermen will still be allowed on the main stem at times, but with selective gear such as purse seines and beach seines. The plan also gradually increases the percentage of the salmon catch allocated to sports anglers to as much as 100 percent for summer chinook.
All nine commissioners said they favored the plan because it will move commercial fishermen to selective gear that doesn’t harm wild fish.
Commissioners also pointed out that an economic analysis by Department of Fish and Wildlife staff shows that, in the long run at least, switching fishing techniques will be better for commercial fishermen.
“It’s a bold but practical move,” said commission chair Miranda Wecker of Naselle.
For years, sport and commercial fishers have battled over the allocation of salmon between the two groups, and sports anglers object that gillnets kill endangered wild fish.
Last year, several sport fishing and conservation organizations teamed up to get Oregon Measure 81, which would have banned the use of gillnets, on the Oregon ballot. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped in with a less drastic measure, which the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved on Dec. 7 and sent on to Washington.
Most of the people who testified during the Washington commission meeting Saturday favored the plan; several dozen of them wore the red hats of the Coastal Conservation Association, which has lobbied in favor of it.
Ed Wickersham of the CCA brought a piece of gillnet before the commission and said it can’t be used selectively. “This is antiquated gear from the 19th century which was used when there were few people and many fish,” Wickersham said.
George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which represents boat manufacturers, said his group supports the plan. “Sport fishing in Washington state is highly important,” Harris said.
However, commercial fishermen said it would decimate their business and not increase fish runs.
“We won’t see more salmon,” said Ken Wirkkala of Ilwaco. “You’re just taking them from our fishery to the sports fishery.”
Under the plan, “180 guys are out of business,” said Steve Gray of Seaview.
Bruce Crookshanks of Centralia asked the commission to delay action to see what develops in a lawsuit filed against Oregon’s adoption of the plan, and said a lawsuit challenging the Washington action is possible, too.
Wirkkala objected that money isn’t available to pay for raising fish in net pens for commercial fishermen to catch.
Some commissioners agreed that there isn’t any guarantee that state funding will be provided for the additional fish the plan calls for.
“The plan admittedly holds many more uncertainties” for commercial than sports fishermen, Wecker said.
However, she said, “the interest in the Columbia River sport fishery has skyrocketed.”
Some commissioners also said that Washington and Oregon need to have the same regulations on the river for orderly management.
“My view is that the commercial industry has to be adaptive,” said commissioner Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon, a former gillnetter himself. “That’s the future.”
The plan adopted Saturday has more flexibility than an earlier version. Though gillnets are to be phased out over the next four years, the commission may choose to still allow them “if alternative selective gear is not available and practical” for fall chinook and coho.
Commissioners also said they will review the plan annually.
Guy Norman, Southwest Washington WDFW manager, said the department can “learn as we go and implement as we learn. We’re trying to be more flexible and give the commissioners more latitude to make changes down the road.”
Though the plan calls for splitting spring chinook 70 percent for sport anglers and 30 for commercial, the commission changed that to 65/35 for the upcoming season. It has been 60 percent for the sports anglers.