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Lower Columbia Gill-Net Ban: Would Eastern Washington, Idaho Get Short End Of The Fisheries Stick?
Posted on Friday, November 30, 2012 (PST)

As Oregon and Washington consider banning gill nets from the lower Columbia River, some worry the move could have unintended and negative consequences on salmon fisheries in Idaho and eastern Washington.

Managers at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and some eastern Washington anglers fear the move will increase the number of Idaho-bound spring chinook caught by the recreational fishing fleet below Bonneville Dam, and that could lead to fewer fish and shorter seasons in the Snake River and its tributaries.

"Most likely they would catch more hatchery fish and of course we know a large number of the hatchery fish they are catching in that fishery are destined for Idaho," said Pete Hassemer, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

Idaho has long had concerns with the number of Idaho-bound fish being caught in sport fisheries below Bonneville Dam.

The bulk of those fishing seasons typically take place in March and April when fishing conditions in the lower Columbia are more reliable than in May and June when high spring flows can muddy the water.

But the early spring fishing targets a high percentage of early returning fish like those bound for the Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins, the Clearwater Hatchery and Dworshak National Fish Hatchery at Orofino and the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery at Kooskia.

"It's fairly common for one out of every two fish they catch down river to come from one of those four hatcheries," he said.

Oregon and Washington are in the midst of a process to move nontribal, commercial gill-net fishing off of the main stem Columbia and into side channels of the river's estuary. Doing so is expected to reduce the number of protected wild fish caught in the nets.

At the same time, the states are looking to change the way hatchery salmon are split between commercial and sport anglers. Over four years, the percentage of spring chinook allocated to sport versus commercial anglers would increase from about the current 60 percent to 40 percent split in favor of sport anglers to an 80-20 split.

Because fewer wild fish would be caught in gill nets, the states would be less likely to have to stop their seasons because of concerns over wild fish.

Oregon and Washington estimate the changes could add three days to the sport fishing season on the lower Columbia. While it doesn't sound like much, Hassemer said when fishing is good, the sport fleet is deadly efficient.

"It's such a powerful machine. They can harvest a lot of fish in a short period of time," he said.

Hassemer said Idaho isn't worried about how Oregon and Washington divvy up their share of the run between sport and commercial anglers but rather how they divvy up the catch between different stocks of fish.

"We don't like to see it all stacked up across a couple of stocks that support our fisheries up here," he said.

The Walla Walla-based Tri-State Steelheaders is pushing Washington and Oregon to adopt measures that allow a portion of those early returning stocks to pass upriver prior to the start of fishing season in the lower river.

"There needs to be a biologically significant number of spring chinook allowed to cross Bonneville (Dam) before the lower river season goes to seven days a week or not open at all until that number is reached," said Mike Bireley, the group's executive director.

He served on a working group that helped craft the proposal the fish and wildlife commissions of Oregon and Washington will consider. Bireley was the only member of the group from eastern Washington and said there is fundamental inequity in the way Washington divides its spring chinook fishery between the lower Columbia and those on the mid-Columbia and Snake rivers.

"Unless the flaw in the current allocation process is changed, the only net result is the lower river is going to have a lot more fish to harvest and the upper river, especially the Snake River and Idaho, is going to get the short end of the stick."

The proposed gill net ban, which is being called by the states “a proposed plan to restructure salmon and sturgeon fisheries on the lower Columbia River” is now available for review on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

The recommendations, available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/fisheries/lower_columbia/ , were developed by a work group made up of representatives from Washington and Oregon. The group finalized the recommendations Nov. 15 during a meeting in Seaside, Ore.

The work group -- assembled at the request of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber -- worked since early September on the recommendations, which will now be considered in December by both states’ fish and wildlife commissions.

Key provisions of the proposed plan, "Management Strategies for Columbia River Recreational and Commercial Fisheries: 2013 and Beyond," include:

-- prioritizing the recreational fisheries in the mainstem Columbia River and commercial fisheries in off-channel areas.

-- transitioning non-tribal commercial fisheries remaining in the mainstem to alternative gear, such as beach and purse seines.

-- phasing out the use of gillnets by non-tribal fishers in the mainstem by 2017, while maintaining the economic viability of the commercial fishery during and after the transition.

-- shifting a greater portion of current hatchery salmon releases to off-channel areas, and exploring options for expanding those areas for commercial fisheries.

-- gradually increasing the catch share of salmon for sport fisheries in the mainstem by 2017, including 80 percent for spring chinook and 100 percent for summer chinook.

-- requiring sport anglers fishing for salmon and steelhead in the mainstem Columbia River and its tributaries to use barbless hooks beginning 2013.

-- considering catch-and-release only recreational fisheries for white sturgeon in the lower river, Washington’s coast and Puget Sound, to protect lower Columbia River-origin white sturgeon. -- -- closing non-tribal commercial fisheries for white sturgeon in the lower river and coast also would be considered as part of this effort.

-- reviewing the plan during the transition to ensure objectives are being met. If necessary, changes will be made to meet the established objectives.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for WDFW, is scheduled to accept public comments on the recommendations during its Dec. 14-15 meeting in Olympia.

An agenda for that meeting will be posted on WDFW’s website (http://wdfw.wa.gov/commission/meetings.html ) when it becomes available.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife commission also is scheduled to consider the proposal at its Dec. 7 meeting in Portland.

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