Following a special Tuesday meeting the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission agreed to a gubernatorial request that legal rulemaking be launched with the aim rewriting state fishing regulations to outlaw the use of gill-nets on the mainstem Columbia River by non-tribal commercial fishermen.
The OFWC agreed at meeting’s end to direct the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to start the state’s rulemaking process. Participating in the meeting were commission members, who dialed in on the conference call, ODFW Director Roy Elicker, Fish Division Chief Ed Bowles and Deputy Director Curt Melcher. Representing Gov. John Kitzhaber was natural resources adviser Brett Brownscombe.
An Aug. 9 letter from the governor to the OFWC and ODFW said that a new management strategy is necessary to achieve multiple goals: reducing frictions between sport and commercial fishers over the allocation of harvest impacts on protected salmon and steelhead; providing adequate fisheries for both factions, and supporting salmon recovery efforts.
Kitzhaber’s plan calls for a transition from the use of gill nets to more selective gear in the mainstem, and the enhancement of so-called select areas in the lower Columbia estuary where gill nets could still be used.
Four select areas – three in Oregon and one Washington waters, are off-channel sites where young hatchery salmon are acclimatized in net pens and then released so they can swim to the Pacific Ocean and grow to maturity.
When the hatchery fish return from the ocean as adults to spawn they home in on the select areas, for the most part, where they can be swept in by the gill-nets. Incidental take of wild protected fish in the select areas is relatively low as compared to the mainstem channel. So, the governor says, moving the gill nets to select areas will aid wild fish conservation.
The governor’s proposal calls for a three-year transition to the use of selective gear in the mainstem and to providing selection area enhancements that could include the release of more fish in the existing areas, the enlargement of those areas or the creation of new areas.
The rulemaking jumps the gun on a ballot proposal scheduled for the Nov. 6 Oregon general election that wants to ban the use of gill-nets in all of the state’s inland waters, including those select areas. The ballot was first proposed by the Coastal Conservation Association,
“There would not be a transition and there would be a significant economic impact to the commercial fishing industry” if the ballot measure is approved, Branscombe. “The governor does not want that.”
A joint panel was established late in 2008 to try to solve allocation and ESA impact issues. Among the principles recommended was to provide more hatchery production for select areas.
Some of the principles have been employed.
But the states “have not finished the job and improved select area fisheries,” Melcher said.
After hearing assents from the other members, OFWC Chair Bobby Levy directed the ODFW to begin a rulemaking process to accomplish the goals set out in Kitzhaber’s letter. That will include a public process and consultations/discussions with officials from Washington, which co-manages fisheries that take place on the mainstem Columbia where it defines the two states’ border.
The Kitzhaber proposal mirrors in many respects the proposal that prompted discussions which led to recommendations in 2009.
Brownscombe said that the governor “feels strongly the Commission is the proper venue” to decide such issues.
He said the Kitzhaber favors banning gill nets use on the mainstem Columbia, but that the ballot measure goes too far.
Kitzhaber “does intend to oppose Ballot Measure 81” in favor of his own proposal, Branscombe said.
Elicker said the ball is already rolling, with conversations initiated with WDFW Director Phil Anderson and the WDFC chair. The ODFW director said he hopes joint rulemaking process could be completed by the end of the year.
“We’re not working from scratch here,” Elicker said. “We came very close during the 2008 process.”
“Both sides of the river are interested in moving forward on this,” Elicker said. “I believe we can advance the governor’s direction and in a timely manner.”
An Aug. 10 response from Anderson to Kitzhaber’s letter stressed the need to continue coordinated fishery management of the Columbia and “ensure the two states continue to have reciprocal regulations and concurrent enforcement authority.”
He, like Kitzhaber, said that management must include harvest objectives for both commercial and recreational fisheries, recognizing their economic importance to both states.
“We agree with Governor Kitzhaber that Columbia River fisheries management is very complex and requires the states to balance the legitimate needs and interests of many important groups and organizations. We respect the objectives he expresses in his letter, but are not bound by them,” Anderson said.
“The Washington Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife are ready to work with our counterparts in Oregon to engage in an open and transparent process to explore ways to improve the management of our commercial and recreational salmon and sturgeon fisheries in the lower Columbia River.”
Salmon For All, an association of gillnetters, fish buyers, processors and associated businesses, like some, but not all, of the elements of Kitzhaber’s strategy.
“We’re certainly willing to sit down to discuss science-based management of Columbia River fisheries, as Governor Kitzhaber proposes,” a statement from the group says. “While we disagree with some particulars of Governor Kitzhaber’s approach, we agree with him that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is the appropriate venue to address these issues. We have encouraged the Commission to fully vet these issues in the past, and we have participated in those discussions.
“We also agree with Governor Kitzhaber that proposals that fail to enhance benefits for commercial and sport fishermen within a conservation framework are unacceptable,” Salmon For All says.
“That’s why we oppose Measure 81. Not only is it poor fishery management policy, it would also cost jobs in Oregon’s commercial fishing industry and deny Oregon consumers access to Columbia River salmon while allowing Washington commercial fishermen to continue gillnet fishing in the Columbia River,” the statement says. “It wouldn't save a single salmon or sturgeon, just let sports fishermen and Washington commercial fishermen catch them instead.
“Mainstem commercial fisheries are an integral part of our member's livelihoods and need to be continued in a responsible manner, as they have been under current management practices.
“We do not believe off channel areas can be enhanced enough to replace mainstem commercial fisheries. As this process moves forward, we will oppose proposals not based in science that remove fishing opportunities for our members to continue to provide high quality fish to Oregon consumers,” Salmon For All says.
“Salmon for All will, of course, continue its campaign to defeat Measure 81. We will make sure Oregonians understand that it's a special interest sport fishing group’s bid to monopolize Columbia River salmon at the expense of our state’s consumers and commercial fishing families.”
A statement released this week by Stop Gillnets Now applauds Kitzhaber’s support for an end to mainstem gill-net fishing. Stop Gillnets Now is a coalition of organizations that is promoting the ballot measure. In addition to CCA, it includes the NW Steelheaders, the NW Sportsfishing Industry Association, NW Guides and Anglers Association, Oregon Wild and the Humane Society of the United States.
“Undertaking a ballot measure campaign was not a decision made lightly, but our supporters believed it was the only way to break through decades of political inaction and enact real reforms to protect Oregon's wild fish and wildlife,” Stop Gillnets Now says.
“That Measure 81 has led the ODFW Commission to consider real reforms to address the harm caused by indiscriminate gillnets through a new rule making demonstrates real progress,” the statement says. “While differences remain between the governor’s proposal and Ballot Measure 81, both share the same long term vision: removing gillnets from the lower Columbia for the betterment of endangered wild fish, wildlife and our economy.
“We believe that the governor’s vision, if adopted and implemented as proposed, represents a significant milestone in the management of fisheries on the lower Columbia,” Stop Gillnets Now says.
“The Stop Gillnets Now campaign commits to support Governor Kitzhaber's rule making process in order to advance the common-sense goal of removing gillnets from the lower Columbia. We are committed, as we have always been, to the cooperative spirit embodied in his proposal.”
Nontheless, the Measure 81 campaign will continue, said CCA Bryan Irwin, since the states have in the past attempted unsuccessfully to agree on regulatory changes needed to end mainstem gill-net fishing.