Staffers from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) are venturing into well-charted but controversy-infested waters as they prepare to sail into a rule-making process designed to weigh anchor on Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposal to reform fisheries management on the lower Columbia River.
The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) members opted to back Kitzhaber during an Aug. 14 teleconference focused only on the governor’s proposed solution to the on-going, complex and intense conflicts between commercial and recreational fishermen over salmon allocations in the lower Columbia River, as well as with conservation groups opposed to gillnetting. In an Aug. 9 letter to ODFW Director Roy Elicker and OFWC Chairwoman Bobby Levy, Kitzhaber outlined a compromise designed to phase gillnets out of the mainstem Columbia rather than ban them completely.
“Lower Columbia River recreational and commercial fisheries are vital to the social and economic fabric of our state and local communities, providing valuable jobs and millions of dollars of economic activity,” Kitzhaber wrote, noting that “optimizing the economic value of these fisheries within a conservation-based framework” is one of his priorities, although it is caught in the same net as high-profile reform issues such as health care and education.
Brent Brownscombe, the governor’s natural resources adviser, participated in the teleconference, providing an overview of the issue and the governor’s perspective on it and answering specific questions from the commissioners.
Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead within the Columbia River Basin are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which means all fisheries face significant limits due to low abundance and required survival of ESA-listed fish. Oregon’s long-term plan is the recovery of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead populations to levels that would support what Kitzhaber called “robust fisheries” across the state. Unfortunately, it has resulted in what the governor termed as “perennial and divisive conflicts” between commercial and recreational fisheries over the allocation of harvest impacts, along with the use of gillnets in non-tribal commercial fisheries in the river’s mainstem.
Attempts to reconcile those differences have proven almost futile, and many observers say Kitzhaber’s directive – based primarily on a compromise that sport fishermen put forward several years ago – is the governor’s answer to Measure 81 on the November ballot that, if voters approve it, would ban all commercial gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon’s inland waterways. Under the motto “for salmon, for wildlife, for jobs,” members of Portland-based Stop Gillnets Now (SGN) and others gathered 142,000 signatures to get the initiative, also known as the Protect Our Salmon Act, on the ballot.
The measure’s supporters say it would ban the use of “indiscriminate” gillnets on the Columbia River, yet still allow commercial fishing using “more sustainable practices,” such as purse seines.
They say it would protect the river’s wild salmon and steelhead, keep tribal fishing rights intact, retain the allocations for both commercial and recreational fisheries, and preserve the commercial fishery through required alternatives, such as seine nets and other selective gear that allows for the harvest of hatchery fish and protects endangered wild salmon and steelhead populations. They point to a 2009 Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) pilot project focused on gillnet alternatives, which also included participation by ODFW.
An August 2010 news release from ODFW quotes John North, the agency’s Columbia River fisheries manager. “Development of viable fishing gear that can selectively remove hatchery fish would not only benefit commercial fisheries, but may also contribute to the recovery of wild salmon stocks on the Columbia river by reducing interactions with hatchery fish,” he said.
Kitzhaber’s directive also features the use of selective gear and fishing techniques “to minimize mortality of ESA-listed and non-target fish and optimize recovery.” The governor made it clear that he believes the use of gillnets in non-tribal mainstem fisheries is at odds with that objective.
Brownscombe told OFWC members that while Kitzhaber is not fundamentally opposed to gillnets, “it’s a mater of place” and whether or not the commercial fishery can switch its focus to hatchery fish. The governor said the matter is best resolved by a combined effort by the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions, not through a ballot measure.
Kitzhaber noted that he wants “a long-term solution to this contentious issue – one that enhances fisheries while minimizing mortality of wild fish to promote fish recovery, honors tribal commitments and optimizes economic benefits.”
“The long-term solution must enhance the economic vitality of both recreational and commercial fisheries, which provide the public with benefits, including recreation, family-wage jobs and businesses, local commerce and export economies, nationally-renowned culinary destinations and the Pacific Northwest’s uniquely high quality of life and culture,” the governor wrote. “Proposals that fail to enhance benefits for both recreational and commercial interests in the lower Columbia within a conservation framework are an unacceptable solution, as is the status quo.”
Finding a workable solution could prove daunting.
Brownscombe said the issue features “no shortage of history and conflicts.”
Both Oregon and Washington initiated measures to regulate the commercial salmon fishery as early as the 1870s, but conflicting regulations often hampered efforts to properly manage the resource. In 1915, the two states forged the Columbia River Compact. Adopted by the US Congress in 1918, the compact made the states co-managers of all Columbia River fisheries. It and the joint management staff from ODFW and WDFW still provide principal management of those fisheries, in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Fish and Game, the four treaty tribes and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. During the ensuing decades, other commercial activities – mining, logging, grazing and irrigation diversions – led to pollution and ever-increasing conflicts with a full-scale commercial salmon fishery.
The river’s salmon fishery now is one of the world’s most highly regulated fisheries, and numerous attempts to reconcile conflicts and resolve the river’s “salmon crisis” via various committees, commissions and councils have fallen short. Oregon and Washington representatives were tantalizingly close to agreeing on new gillnet rules in 2008, but Brownscombe said the effort failed as the process broke down due to escalating tensions between and objections from commercial and recreational fishery groups.
Efforts were scheduled to resume in 2013, but the success of getting Measure 81 on the November ballot spawned an earlier try by Kitzhaber.
Basically, the governor wants to phase out commercial gillnets from the river’s mainstem during a three-year transition (2013 to 2016) and move them into off-channel areas that would be enhanced to raise more hatchery fish for commercial fishermen, who could only fish in the main channel if they use alternative or selective fishing gear. A clear transition period, Kitzhaber noted, “is a central part of this solution…to span the time needed for the new investments in off-channel areas to occur and provide returns necessary to the vitality of the commercial fishery.”
Kitzhaber cited the OFWC as the proper venue to initiate “immediate significant steps” toward that goal.
He asked the commissioners to initiate a public rulemaking process to work toward adopting “a solution that achieves the key elements” of his proposal. He directed them to work with their counterparts in Washington, and to begin the process immediately to complete the needed rulemaking before the end of 2012.
The commission agreed.
Stop Gillnetting Now spokesman Jeremy Wright called the acknowledgement by the governor and the commission “a remarkable change.” While retaining “a healthy and understandable skepticism,” Wright said the group would participate in the rulemaking process.
David Reinhard, spokesman for Salmon for All, an association of gillnetters, fish buyers, processors and associated businesses founded in 1958, also weighed in. He said they need to retain mainstem fishing because off-channel areas can’t be enhanced enough to replace lost fishing opportunity.
Reinhard said they disagreed with some particulars of the governor’s approach, but agreed that the OFWC was the proper venue to pursue the matter. He called Measure 81 “poor fishery management policy” that would cost jobs in Oregon’s commercial fishing industry and deny Oregonians access to Columbia River salmon.
“Measure 81 is about politics, not policy,” Reinhard said. “Collaboration among tribal, sports and commercial fishermen working with state, federal and tribal officials is the best way to develop fisheries policy.”
Terry Dillman can be reached at email@example.com.