A Bad Plan for a Healthy Fishery
The Columbia River Working Group held its third and final meeting in Seaside Oregon on November 15. The Working Group was established in September to consider Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plan to change the Columbia River salmon harvest allocation and phase gillnets out of the main stem. The working group was composed of three Fish and wildlife commissioners from Oregon, three from Washington, plus two commercial and two sport advisers from each state.
Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposal was introduced in August. There were several aspects to his plan. The primary one was that gillnets would be phased out of main stem fisheries over the coming four years. This would not apply to the tribal fisheries but it would essentially eliminate the non-Indian gillnet fishery which has been in place on the River for 150 years. Gillnets would be restricted to the off channel “Select” areas such as Young’s Bay by Astoria, which have been established for more than 20 years and were originally intended to supplement the main stem fishery, not to replace it. The governor’s basic premise was that gillnets are non-selective and are therefore incompatible with the conservation requirements for rebuilding endangered and threatened salmon runs in the Columbia. He also sought to create a sport priority for the fisheries on the Columbia.
The governor said that his motivation for this proposal was two-fold. First, Measure 81 was going to be on the ballot in Oregon in November, and Kitzhaber said that he felt his proposal would allow the gillnet fishery to continue, albeit on a more restricted scale, because the measure would eliminate the use of gillnets anywhere in Oregon. He proposed that the groups promoting the initiative, such as the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), Northwest Steelheaders and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA), withdraw their support and instead back his plan, which is what they eventually agreed to do. The commercial industry, meanwhile, was developing an active campaign to kill the measure, confident that it would be defeated in the polls just like three similar previous initiatives in the Northwest in the last 20 years, provided the public could be informed that it was primarily an allocation issue, not a conservation issue. Oregon voters did soundly defeat Measure 81 by a margin of two to one, but Kitzhaber had pushed the discussion into a forum over which he could have more control, so the results of the Working Group meetings became the real focus for changes in salmon management on the Columbia.
Governor Kitzhaber also said that he was frustrated by the continual contentious atmosphere between the sport and commercial fisheries on the River that led to regular arguments over allocation of the salmon resource. However, nowhere did he bother to consider that those arguments were always initiated by the sport community, not the commercial fishermen, under lobbying by industry segments such as NSIA and the CCA that were always pushing for more sport fishing time and a greater share of the resource.
Management guidelines in both states for the sharing of the salmon resources require that decisions by the commissions provide for the economic stability of both sport and commercial user groups. In order to maintain that economic stability for the gillnetters, Gov. Kitzhaber proposed significant increases in the release of Chinook and Coho smolts in the off-channel Select areas to provide additional income that would replace the harvest in the main stem. He also encouraged the development of alternative gears that he claimed would be more selective than the gillnets and would be more compatible with rebuilding the salmon runs.
Over the course of these meetings, it became apparent to the commercial advisors that there wasn’t going to be any effort to find compromise between the existing fishery management plan and Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposal. In fact, he stated that it was essential that his proposal be adopted in its entirety; that selecting some portions and eliminating others would make it ineffective. It was apparent that the commissioners were taking that directive to heart.
The first meeting allowed some time for discussing the priorities for the commissions and also for the various user groups, and staff was assigned various objectives to flesh out in an effort to provide some clarity for how these changes could be accomplished. However, at the start of the second meeting in Portland in October, the Washington Commission representatives already had a proposal for how they wanted to modify the existing fisheries and implement the Oregon Governor’s plan. This ended up being the framework that Oregon also worked toward by the final meeting, and was essentially the plan the commissions agreed to bring to their full commissions for consideration and adoption in December.
The commercial representatives in this process spent a lot of energy pointing out basic flaws in the Governor’s plan, but it was clear from the beginning that the commissions were not interested in discussing the plan – they were only interested in finding the means for making it a reality. The commercials challenged the concepts of non-selectivity in the existing fishery by pointing out that the industry had made significant strides over the last 15 years in adapting their fishery to the recovery of the weak stocks in the Columbia. For example, they use tangle nets in the spring, they use large mesh nets during the summer season to avoid steelhead and sockeye that are in the river, and they use zone closures to avoid weak stocks in the fall fishery. All in all, the present fishery is vastly different from the historical fishery, creating a gillnet harvest that is highly selective in catching plentiful stocks while avoiding weak ones. Their record of staying within their quotas consistently exceeds that of the sport fishery that is fishing at the same time in the river.
The commercial folks also pointed out that the existing fishery already exhibits a significant sport priority. The majority of the non-Indian spring Chinook and summer Chinook are reserved for sport harvest. In the fall, the sport fishery is developed in the North of Falcon process to create as much of their preferred season as possible, and the commercial fishery works on the frontside and backside of the Chinook runs to stay within their share of the wild Tule Chinook impacts while harvesting plentiful hatchery Tule and wild upriver bright stocks assigned to them.
The commercial representatives also pointed out numerous times that the salmon hatcheries are paid for in the Columbia by federal and local mitigation monies that all citizens contribute to. The sport license monies go to the production of steelhead and trout, not salmon, therefore implementation of Gov. Kitzhaber’s plan would essentially remove the salmon from the marketplace and deny access to them to those who are paying for them. They also pointed out that the alternative gears that are being tested on the river, primarily beach and purse seines, are still in the developmental stage and though they have been shown to catch fish effectively when fished on the peak of the run, their economic viability has not been proven. They are also presently not legal in Oregon, and would only be allowed in Washington under “emerging fishery” rules at this time.
It also became clear as the process played out, that Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposal to increase smolt production and releases would not be adequate to replace the income the gillnet fleet derived from their main stem fisheries. In fact, the proposed smolt releases were reduced significantly from the original plan so that they would only provide one-third to one-half of the income originally intended. In order to balance the economics, Department staff indicated the creation of a variety of new fisheries, many with alternative gears and a few with existing gears, but it was unclear exactly when those would take place, what they would catch, and how they would interact with the sport fisheries in the river, or how the fishermen might pay for the significant costs of building new nets and finding boats they could use for seining.
Nonetheless, the two commissions moved ahead with Kitzhaber’s plan and developed guidelines that would turn the spring Chinook fishery, the most prized runs on the Columbia for the marketplace, over to the sport fishing industry. The summer Chinook runs, a healthy stock which spawns in north-central Washington and had only been rebuilt to harvestable levels in the last 10 years after being protected since the mid-60s, would also be turned over completely to the sport fishery within four years. The fall Chinook fishery, which is composed primarily of wild upriver bright Chinook, a healthy stock that spawns near Hanford, would still be available to the commercial fishermen, but with Kitzhaber’s intent to eliminate gillnets it would be transitioned to alternative gears.
Of course, though the existing commercial fishery would be significantly reduced by this plan, if not completely eliminated, the other big loser would be the fish buying public. There would be no certainty over when fish would be available, and the window of opportunity to bring some fish to market would certainly be reduced. All in all, the Chinook runs on the Columbia, historically the biggest producer of Chinook salmon in the world, would become primarily the domain of sports fishermen, except for the tribal fishery, which would continue above Bonneville dam.
The commissions are set to consider finalizing this plan in their December meeting. There is still some uncertainty about how that will play out. The commissions are supposed to manage the resource for the benefit of the public, and for the economic stability of both the sport and commercial industries. It would seem on the surface that this plan clearly violates that tenet, as it would be applied to the commercial fishermen on the Columbia. There is also the question of whether Gov. Kitzhaber’s plan can be defended in a forum other than the commissions, which have tended to act for the benefit of the sport industry in recent years, especially in Washington. Staff was unable to supply a much defensible statistical backing for the Governor’s plan, from the basic premise of gillnets, as used in the Columbia, being nonselective, to the question of future income for the commercial fishermen as the fishery transitions to a model that prioritizes recreational seasons that match the requirements of the sport industry at the expense of making fish available to the public. There is also the matter of tribal concerns. The tribes are opposed to the plan and say they will request reopening the management plan currently in place on the Columbia to discuss how Kitzhaber’s plan will impact their harvest.
There is also the question of what Washington Governor- elect Jay Inslee will have to say in regards to this plan, once he takes office. There are no Select areas in Washington for their fishermen except for Deep River, which has traditionally been a very poor producer. It would seem that this plan will have a negative economic impact on Washington, because even though Washington State’s gillnetters can fish in the Oregon Select areas, they would have to sell their catch in Oregon. It will also be hugely damaging to the fragile rural economies of the lower Columbia in both states. All of the counties on the lower Columbia are in opposition to Kitzhaber’s plan. That should be a significant concern to the future Governor.
Clearly, the whole process has created more questions than it has provided answers to. The commissions in the two states appear confident that they can put this plan into play by the end of the year. It will be up to the commercial industry to find ways to continue the discussion and try and bring some factual basis into anything that is developed. It will also be important to continue to bring the public into the discussion, either via the legislature in both states or the markets, restaurants and individuals who appreciate the unique and wonderful quality of the salmon available from the Columbia and who need to recognize that if this plan is allowed to be implemented, it will have a huge negative impact on the availability of local salmon to the 90 percent of the population in the Northwest that doesn’t sport fish. It is also important to remember that it will do nothing to help rebuild weak salmon runs in the Columbia – it will only reallocate the harvestable fish to the sportfishing industry.
Columbia River Commercial fisherman and buyer Robert Sudar has served as commercial adviser to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the last 20 years.