If continued testing this year and next proves favorable, the states of Oregon and Washington could launch a full-fleet commercial salmon fishery on the lower Columbia River in late summer-fall of 2013 employing “selective” fishing gear.
“If information supports moving forward, then 2013 would be a good starting date,” said Guy Norman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Last year’s first year of larger scale testing of purse seines, beach seines and trap nets produced “encouraging news,” Norman said during a Wednesday presentation to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The tests showed that two seine gear types worked well, sweeping in a lot of coho and fall chinook in a benign manner.
And the gear is seemingly growing in favor with commercial fishers, who had initially been skeptical of shifting from gill-nets and tangle nets to other costly gear types, he said.
“We’ve made a lot of gains in that arena in the past few years,” Norman said.
The idea of the testing is to find gear that allows the live capture of fish so that marked, hatchery fish can be harvested and unmarked wild salmon and steelhead can be released unharmed. The goal would be to use the selective gear to implement commercial harvests that harms fewer wild salmon and steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act while harvesting more hatchery fish, which can, if they stray onto the spawning grounds, have a negative impact on their listed cousins.
The testing began with a pilot study in 2009, and then more exhaustive research last year to evaluate the “catchability” of three gear types as well as measure any direct mortality of resulting from the netting. The 2010 tests showed the gear to be efficient and benign. Researchers witnessed the immediate mortality of a scant 29 out of the 22,856 fish caught.
The 2010 tests were carried out with $1.9 million in funding from Mitchell Act and Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund accounts administered by NOAA Fisheries Service. This year $1.4 million from the same sources is earmarked for continued gear and direct mortality testing, and another $850,000 is ticketed for long-term mortality research.
Norman said the long-term mortality test plan would by next month be submitted to the Council’s Independent Scientific Review Panel, which evaluates project proposals for scientific merit. The strategy involves employing two purse seines and two beach seines to catch coho and fall chinook below Bonneville and implanting the fish with PIT tags so that their progress up through the hydro system can be tracked. The tagged fish will also turn up at hatcheries, in tribal nets and elsewhere.
“We really need to get a handle on the long-term mortality” of steelhead and salmon released from the seines, Norman said.
The WDFW could potentially pursue funding through the NPCC’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. Funding from the Council program could be used to offset some or all of the mortality study funding so that more of the available Mitchell Act-PCSRF funds could be used to expand the gear testing and involve more commercial fishermen, Norman said.
Last year a total of 13 commercial fishermen were employed in the testing, each getting 30 days on the water during the mid-August to late October time frame.
This year the intent is to use 16 fishers, including the four for the mortality study. They will be spread out, again in the late summer-early fall, among the five Columbia mainstem fishing zones from Bonneville Dam at river mile 146 down to the river mouth.
The testing is drawing interest within the industry. WDFW got 35 applications to fill the 16 spots that are now available. Many looked at the 2010 results and said “this can work,” according to Norman. In addition to the cost of buying different gear and boats, or retrofitting boats, using the seines involves more than one person. A single operator can feed out and retrieve the gill nets used in the river.
To get the necessary data for 2013 implementation, the testing would have to continue in 2012.
“We’re looking at the fall season as the main focus of this alternative gear,” Norman said in response to a question from Oregon Councilor Bill Bradbury about whether a wholesale switch in gears could eventually be required. Norman said the type of gear being used would depend on the species being caught, and the time of the year and the area being fished.
The 13 fishers last year -- six using beach seine nets, five fishing purse seines and two employing trap nets – caught nearly 23,000 salmon and steelhead.
The catch included 11,773 chinook, 8,774 coho and 2,312 steelhead. Both purse and beach seines proved to be effective capture methods, with purse seines being the most effective of the two gear types.
All three gear types allow the fish to be encircled while leaving them free-swimming. Fish can be identified and released by type or species with a minimum amount of handling.
Such gear could be used to help reduce the number of hatchery fish that stray onto the spawning ground and compete with wild fish and, many scientists believe, reduce the fitness of native fish and pose disease risk. A recent review, called for by Congress, by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group identified the need to increase the harvest of hatchery produced salmon in order to reduce their interaction with wild fish. The WFWC endorsed that strategy in its Hatchery and Fishery Reform policy.
Laws require that impacts be limited on wild portions of 13 listed Columbia-Snake river basin salmon and steelhead stocks.
To limit those impacts, there are three primary management tools: increasing the harvest of hatchery fish; installing tributary weirs to remove hatchery fish, and/or decreasing hatchery production.