American shad heading up the Columbia River this year to spawn will be targeted by both Indian and non-Indian commercial fishers wielding “experimental” fishing gear such as purse and beach seines, drift nets and/or a fish wheel. The goal is to catch large volumes of fish to feed, primarily, a hungry Asian market.
“There’s a high demand for fish,” said Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. One fish buyer has said he would take up to a million pounds of shad. Using traditional drift net gear last year commercial fishers landed 2,500 shad (nearly 6,800 pounds) in the Columbia mainstem in the 2S area between Washougal, Wash., and Beacon Rock.
The only treaty commercial harvest of shad in recent years has involved using a trap just upstream from The Dalles Dam Oregon shore fish ladder. The result there too has been a relatively small harvest.
“To attract commercial buyers we really need to catch a lot of them,” said Stuart Ellis, fishery biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. CRITFC’s member tribes – the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama -- on Wednesday asked the Columbia River Compact for permission to sell shad caught from May 16 through July during tests of experimental gear.
“The Yakama Nation plans to authorize a limited number of experimental permits to test different types of fishing gear not currently used in Zone 6 to assess the feasibility of harvesting commercial quantities of shad while minimizing the handling of salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon,” the tribe’s Roger Dick told the Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fishing seasons. The Compact is made up of representatives of the directors of the Oregon and Washington Department of Fish and Game.
Possible gear includes purse seines, beach seines, and/or a fish wheel. Dick said expects as many as five Yakama crews to seek permits for such test fisheries in reservoirs upstream of Bonneville Dam.
The Umatilla Tribes plan a similar test using a drift net with comparable features to shad nets utilized in commercial drift net fisheries downstream of Bonneville Dam -- mesh size of greater than 5 inches and less that 6 ¼ inches with a breaking strength no more than a 10-pound pull. Driftnet length must be less than 900 feet. Dick said that there is only one Umatilla permit seeker.
The driftnets to be used would be the same as those used in the 2S fishery downstream. The shallower and shorter nets have proven to substantially reduce the handle of salmonids compared to the gear used in the non-tribal shad fisheries prior to 1996.
Shad along with incidentally caught walleye, yellow perch, bass, catfish, and carp may be sold commercially to offset the costs of doing the gear tests. Any salmon, steelhead, or sturgeon caught would be released.
Each tribe will require monitoring and data collection as part of the permit. Appropriate release mortality as determined by TAC will be applied to any released salmon or steelhead.
“Should impacts be no longer available for whatever reason the tests would be suspended,” the tribal proposal says. Each tribe will issue a technical report at the conclusion of gear test.
“We’re looking forward to seeing if it can be done,” Ellis said.
The Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fishing seasons, approved the tribes’ request.
The Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes may propose experimental gear testing for shad also, however they have not submitted proposals yet.
Yakama permits will allow non-Yakama and non-treaty individuals to advise on the use of gear, but not actively work gear while it is fishing. Additionally, Yakama permits will require that only Yakama members will be allowed to sell the above mentioned species.
A week earlier the Compact had approved an application from commercial fisherman John McKinley to catch and sell shad caught with experimental gear – a purse seine – in the lower Columbia mainstem offshore of Skamokawa, Wash., from May 16 through July 15. Because Oregon and Washington co-manage the mainstem, McKinley was also required to gain a permit from Oregon, state requirement for allowing the use of experimental gear for the taking of food fish.
ODFW staff will monitor McKinley’s fishing activities (effort, catch rates, incidental handle of non-target species such as salmon and steelhead). The data will provide information on the suitability of purse seine gear as a tool for harvesting shad in addition to obtaining information on the catch of other species during the summer time frame.
“Staff will be on board to record all the data,” said the ODFW’s John North. Any salmon mortality that occurs would be applied to take limits reserved by the states for research, monitoring and evaluation. Take permits are issued to allow certain levels of incidental take of wild salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Oregon permit requires that “any salmon, steelhead or non-target species taken as incidental catch in operation of such gear immediately, with care and the least possible injury, be released and transferred to the water without violence.”
The seines and fish wheels sweep in the fish in a relatively benign manner, which allows the fishers to release species such as salmon relatively unharmed.
McKinley participated last year in WDFW-sponsored tests using purse seines to catch salmon. The idea there is to allow the live capture of the fish so that unmarked, presumably wild, listed fish can be released unharmed. The goal would be to harvest as many marked hatchery fish, which are produced expressly for harvest, as possible so they can’t stray onto the spawning grounds. There is a relatively high post-release mortality rate for the gill-nets now used by the lower river fleet.
With the shad fishery he’s on his own, hoping to catch and sell enough to pay his expenses and then some. The purse seine crew will require three other people – two deck hands and another person in a skiff to bring the net full circle. Seine nets are usually long flat nets like a fence that are used to encircle a school of fish, with the boat driving around the fish in a circle. McKinley, of course, will pilot his fishing boat.
“I want to be a part of the solution,” McKinley said of a dilemma facing commercial fishers – making a living while also staying within the bounds of the ESA. They can catch salmon but those opportunities are tightly controlled to keep take of listed fish below meager limits.
“Maybe it (shad fishing) would be an option for fishermen that don’t go to Alaska” in midsummer to fish, McKinley said. “I’ve got to think there’s potential.”