Following an initiative from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Washington's Fish and Wildlife Commission has decreed that gillnets will be moved out of the main channel of the Columbia. Officials say the goal is to reduce the by-catch of salmon from endangered runs. Recreational anglers would be given allocation priority, and fishery managers are working to develop new fisheries and techniques that will permit commercial fishers to harvest hatchery stock.
Invited to speak at the monthly meeting of the Cathlamet town council, Guy Norman said one experimental enhancement project is to classify the Cathlamet channel as a side channel of the river and to develop a fishery there for commercial fishers.
This spring, the town council permitted the department to moor rearing pens at the town dock.Norman said 200,000 spring chinook were released from the pens; surviving adults will return to the channel in 2016. The department plans similar rearing in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
"We hope to have a fishery without impact on endangered species," he said. "We'll be in a test mode for the next few years."
The department is also considering a similar off-channel project for Coal Creek Slough near Longview, but the Cathlamet Channel is likely to be the most successful because of its wide expanse that will give the fishers room to work.
The department has also been experimenting with the development of gear other than gillnets, and there will be an experimental purse seine fishery this fall, he said.
Twelve to 15 commercial fishermen attended the meeting, and they showed little support for the program.
Clatsop County gillnetter Bill Hunsiger, also a member of the Port of Astoria board of commissioners, said the off-channel fishery won't work. He pointed out that in a recent short opening in the Young's Bay off-channel area, gillnetters caught 107 of the 250 endangered species salmon they're allowed to catch this spring. The same will occur in the Cathlamet Channel, he said.
"If the Cathlamet Channel was open, this commercial fishery will be shut down, and nobody would be fishing," he said. "They're selling a bill of goods.
A gillnetter who didn't identify himself questioned how anyone could call the Cathlamet Channel a side channel. He suggested off channel fisheries could be developed upriver in Coal Creek or Carrolls Slough.
Norman responded that the geography of the Cathlamet Channel is most favorable.
Mike Crouse pointed out that the off-channel plan would bring in gillnetters who would encroach on the territory of the Cathlamet Drift, of which he is a member.
Gillnetters have divided up the river into areas they call drifts, and one has to purchase a drift right to fish in the areas. The members of the drift maintain it by cleaning out snags before the start of a season.
Crouse also commented that the adult return of the 200,000 smolts which were released could be very small, 2,000 fish or fewer, and if each gillnetter catches a few, they won't make enough profit to make their effort and investment in equipment worthwhile.
"You're driving a lot of wedges in where there are already a lot of wedges," Crouse said. Addressing the town council, he added that the council needs to get information from other people.
Department staff are trying to maintain a viable commercial fishery while dealing with changing rules and politics, Norman said.
"The Endangered Species Act came in the 1990s and changed everything," he said. "We couldn't keep fishing the way were were fishing. We've all been affected."
Norman added that the programs will be evaluated in 2016. One criteria that has to be addressed is the economic impact on the commercial fishery.
"The economic benefit of the commercial fishery is not to be reduced," he said. "If the criteria aren't met, then there's room for adaptation of the overall plan."