The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Gillnetters: Kitzhaber plan doesn't deliver


November 24, 2016

Lower Columbia River gillnetters told the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission Nov. 9 that fishery harvest reforms initiated in 2013 are not working economically, while salmon and steelhead anglers accused the commission of vacating its promise to get gillnetters off the river.

As many as 150 people attended the Salem commission meeting and public forum on mainstem fishery harvest reforms, where comments were heard on a proposal by ODFW that would continue gillnetting in some areas of the mainstem river.

The harvest reform package, also known as the Kitzhaber plan, is in its final year of transition and was to become fully effective at the beginning of 2017 when all Columbia River mainstem fishing would be allocated to recreational anglers and commercial gillnetters would fish in off-channel select areas, mostly in the lower river and mostly for hatchery chinook and coho salmon.

However, the reform also promised to keep gillnetters economically whole, but the actual plan implementation is lagging in hatchery production of smolts, identifying additional off-channel areas and developing alternative gear that would allow commercial fishers to better target hatchery fish, among other issues.

The Columbia River Fish Management and Reform was a joint Oregon and Washington Policy initially adopted in 2012 and readopted in 2013.

The ODFW staff is proposing to “rebalance” the harvest reform rules by continuing to allow some gillnetting on the mainstem river, and by targeting for harvest more adult hatchery salmon in the lower river below Bonneville Dam, a conservation move to rid the river of more hatchery fall chinook. As a concession, recreational anglers would gain access to Youngs Bay, near Astoria, an area that has been considered off-limits to them, and would be allowed to use barbed hooks in the Willamette River.

Anglers, led by the Coastal Conservation Association, were vocal about the proposed changes at the hearing and wore red CCA hats and badges that said “No Broken Promises.”

ODFW is trying to rewrite Senate Bill 830, the legislation that formalized the Kitzhaber plan, Bob Reese of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders told the Commission at the hearing.

“We’re not getting what we paid for, sacrificed for, nor what we were promised,” Reese said. “This process feels far from respect.”

He reminded the Commission that ODFW is funded through angler and hunter fees and that, at least the anglers, are ready to move on.

“You cannot keep this agency’s valuable programs intact without fees from anglers and we’re ready to test that,” Reese said. “I’m having a tough time defending this agency’s actions.”

He added that his constituents want to see how the full implementation of the Kitzhaber plan unfolds before they would consider the adaptive management measures being proposed by ODFW staff.

Commercial gillnetter Robert Sudar said recreational anglers already had a priority in the ratio of fish caught on the Columbia River, even before this policy, and that when commercial fishers use tangle nets, post release mortality of unmarked fish drops to 14 percent from the 40 percent mortality of full-size gillnets.

“Fisheries are selective through the use of gear,” he said.

Many anglers at the meeting said gillnetting is indiscriminate and not selective.

Even with the changes to the harvest reform policy suggested by ODFW staff, “there will be at least a 9-year period of economic loss” for commercial fishermen, said Greg Johnson, lower Columbia River gillnetter.

Another Astoria-based commercial gillnetter, Jim Wells, said that beach and purse seining, alternative gear changes gillnetters are experimenting with at the urging of both the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions, are uneconomic.

“Seine fishing has a high mortality of chinook and coho and a high bycatch of other species,” he said. With purse seining, 12.5 sockeye must be returned for every one chinook salmon kept and it’s worse with beach seining where 15 sockeye are returned for every one chinook kept, he said.

“You can’t run a fishery like that. We’re seeing poor participation of seiners because of poor economic returns.” This summer just four boats signed up for seine fishing.

Coho tangle nets so far are the most promising, he said, of all the alternative gear used.

“Also, select area fishing cannot make up the difference for the loss of fishing the mainstem,” Wells said.

Part of the difficulty of providing enough adult fish for commercial off-channel fishing is pending legislation by the Wild Fish Conservancy that challenges NOAA Fisheries funding for 10 Mitchell Act hatcheries. Seven of those hatcheries provide juvenile salmon for lower Columbia River select area fisheries.

NOAA and the Conservancy stipulated in September that the agency will not disburse Mitchell Act funds to the hatcheries until the federal agency has completed its hatchery biological opinion and incidental take statements for the disbursements.

The outcome of the suit is unknown, said Chris Kern of ODFW. It could mean that more hatchery adult salmon will need to be harvested before they reach spawning grounds or it could mean that fewer juvenile salmon would be released.

“This gives us another uncertainty,” Kern said. “There almost certainly will be some reductions.”

In addition, the states of Oregon and Washington have identified just two new off-channel sites out of 29 potential sites it reviewed.

The guiding principles for harvest reform fisheries adopted by the Commission in 2012 included:

-- Maintain or enhance the overall economic viability of commercial and recreational fisheries;

-- Optimize overall economic benefits to the State;

-- Promote conservation of native fish; and

-- Promote orderly and concurrent fisheries with the State of Washington.

While doing this during the transition period through 2016, reform would shift allocations to recreational harvest, enhance off-channel hatchery releases to ensure better commercial harvests and limit gillnetting to those off-channel areas, develop alternative gears and techniques for commercial mainstem fisheries, and strengthen conservation of native fish, the Commission said.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also reviewed the three-year results at its meeting in Olympia Nov. 5 but did not take action and did not consider new statutes. The issue has not yet been added to its December 9 – 10 agenda.

Some things are working: ODFW said that for spring chinook a smolt released off-channel is 30 times more likely to be harvested commercially than a smolt released elsewhere and that 10 times more fish are caught commercially for each endangered species act impact than gillnetting in the mainstem (two times if using mainstem tangle nets).

However, seine post release mortality for unclipped fish is high: 33 percent of the chinook, 38 percent coho and 5 percent steelhead mortality for beach seines and 21 percent chinook, 29 percent coho and 2 percent steelhead for purse seines.

ODFW offered three alternatives to the Commission for consideration:

--Full reform: allow the full Kitzhaber plan to begin January 1, 2017 as planned.

--Alternative 1, an “adaptive management” plan: freeze the transition and allow gillnetting on the mainstem river. Seventy percent of the harvest goes to anglers and 30 percent to gillnetters. Gillnetting would be allowed in late spring if impacts are available, also in the summer and in the fall in zones 4 and 5. Allow mainstem seine fishery, 6-inch gillnets and coho tangle nets, all as in transition years. Juvenile salmon releases in select areas totaling 144 million, including select area bright chinook.

--Alternative 2, also an “adaptive management” plan (recommended by ODFW staff and known as the rebalance): freeze the transition and allow gillnetting on the mainstem river. Eighty percent of the harvest would go to anglers in the spring with a small mainstem commercial harvest with tangle nets. Eighty percent would go to anglers in the summer with mainstem commercial harvest with selective gear to be developed by the fleet with ODFW assistance. In the fall, 70 percent angler harvest with mainstem commercial harvest in Zones 4 and 5 and coho tangle nets in Zones 1 to 3. Implement a fall conservation fishery. In addition to releasing 1.44 million select area bright hatchery juveniles, add 500,000 spring chinook from Gnat Creek and 250,000 each from Westport Slough and Coal Creek. Allow barbed hooks on the Willamette River and remove the Youngs Bay angler closure.

The impacts on angler trips and ex-vessel value for each of these options are:

--No policy, as if the Kitzaber Plan were not in place: 406,100 angler trips, $6.18 million ex-vessel value with a total economic impact of $27.8 million.

--Full policy: 437,100 angler trips and $3.7 - $4.7 million ex-vessel value with a total economic impact of $24.5 - $26.3 million.

--Freeze the transition: 422,600 angler trips and $5.84 million ex-vessel value with a total economic impact of $27.9 million.

--Rebalance: 427,100 angler trips and $5.8 million ex-vessel value with a total economic impact of $28.1 million.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, the Commission directed ODFW staff to refine some of its economic models and bring it back to the December Commission meeting. The Commission also decided to begin rulemaking in December, but only in respect to the reform transition deadline that targets early 2017 for the final rulemaking on the overall fisheries reform.


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