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States To Issue Lower Columbia Purse/Beach Seine Permits As Part Of Effort To Phase Out Gill-Nets
Posted on Friday, July 18, 2014 (PST)

A next big step down a “presumptive path” toward phasing out non-tribal commercial gill-nets on the lower Columbia River will be the deployment late this summer of 10 permit holders equipped with beach and purse seines, equipment that had been outlawed on the river for more than 60 years.


The late fall salmon fisheries stem from fishery management policies adopted in 2013 by the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions “intended to promote the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead and provide fishery-related benefits by maintaining orderly fisheries and by increasingly focusing on the harvest of abundant hatchery fish,” according to a May 30 letter from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Columbia River Policy Coordinator Ron Roler to NOAA Fisheries’ Jeromy Jording, a fisheries biologist working on lower Columbia harvest and hatchery issues.


The policies adopted by the states include a transition period from 2013-2016 to investigate and promote the development of “alternative selective gear” and to expand select area gill-net opportunities in off-channel areas where hatchery fish receive final rearing. Non-selective gill-nets are the primary commercial gear used on the lower Columbia River mainstem.


“By 2017 we’re supposed to be there,” Roler said of the policies’ directive to make decisions on how alternative gear might be employed for a full-fleet fishery.


A seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Seine nets can be deployed from the shore as a beach seine or from a boat, as with a purse seine. When the nets fill with fish, the ends are drawn together to encircle the fish. That allows their “live capture,” and the selective release of certain fish.


“The development and implementation of alternative selective gear such as purse seines and beach seines may provide area-specific opportunity to target commercial harvest on abundant hatchery stocks, reduce the number of hatchery-origin fish in natural spawning areas, limit mortalities of non-target species and stocks, and provide commercial fishing opportunities,” Roler’s letter says.


The state fish and wildlife departments in late May sent invitations Columbia River commercial fishers to apply for permits to participate in commercial seine research fisheries during the 2014 fall season.


“As you know, the states of Oregon and Washington have adopted policies that provide for a transition in Columbia River commercial fisheries which, over time, would favor gear types that facility mark-selective or live-capture fisheries” the application letter said. “To inform this transition and continue research into selective gear types, commercial fisheries using beach and purse seines are expected to occur during the 2014 fall season.”


The state plans to issue 10 permits – four for the use of purse seines and six for beach seines. Fishing will take place in all five fishing “zones,” from Buoy 10 near the river mouth up to Beacon Rock at river mile 141.1.


The applications were due June 20, and a drawing was held July 8 to select 10 potential permittees. They had 10 days to respond and accept the permit and pay any fees due. Washington commercial license holders must pay a $290 “Emerging Fishery license fee. Oregon license holders would play a $32 experimental gear fee. The fishers must provide their own gear.


According to the application letter each permit will allow the harvest of 750 adult chinook for purse seine and about 500 for each beach seine permit. Average coho landings are expected to be about 200 per permit.


Fisheries in the lower river will be mark-selective for both chinook and coho, meaning fish without a clipped fin must be released. A large percentage of hatchery fish are fin clipped as juveniles so that they can be distinguished from unmarked fish, which could be salmon or steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


In fishing zones 4-5 (from the Lewis River mouth at Woodland, Wash., up to Beacon Rock), some non-selective chinook retention opportunity is likely, the application solicitation says. “In order to reduce risk of exceeding ESA impacts, a maximum steelhead handle may be assigned to each permit.”


The majority of the fishing time allowed is expected to be in early September. The actual fishing periods will be set by the Columbia River Compact, a panel made up of representatives of the ODFW and WDFW director.


Non-Indian commercial fishers are not allowed to keep steelhead, but a certain percentage of fish – salmon and steelhead -- caught in the nets die after release in some part because of trauma from the netting and handling.


Results from a 3-year mortality study conducted by WDFW showed quite high mortality rates, particularly for salmon. Those mortality rates for purse seines are 22.5 percent for chinook, 28.9 percent for coho and 3.3 percent for steelhead. Mortality rates for beach seines ae 34.3 percent for chinook, 38.4 percent for coho and 8.3 percent for steelhead.


“The release mortality rates (based on TAC analysis of information from studies conducted by WDFW in 2011, 2012, and 2013) for chinook and coho are higher than managers expected based on low immediate mortality observed during initial investigations observed in 2009-11, and higher than modeled when developing the supporting documents for the current policy,” Roler’s letter says.


Jording agreed that the salmon mortality rates seemed high, “but I’m not sure they are shocking to us.” NOAA Fisheries has witnessed similar release mortality rate estimates elsewhere, such as in Puget Sound fisheries both south and north of the Canadian border that were vetted by both countries.


“Overall, I think the states did a good job in developing a study that was robust,” Jording said of the Columbia mortality study.


Important is the ability to assess the impact of particular fisheries on wild salmon and steelhead that are protected under the ESA. Take limits for non-Indian sport and commercial fisheries, tribal fisheries and for research-related activities such as the planned seining fishery are expressed in NOAA Fisheries’ 2008 U.S. v Oregon biological opinion and/or in the biological assessment on which the BiOp was built.


The bottom line is to avoid going over those prescribed impact limits. Wild Lower Columbia coho, lower Columbia River chinook and Snake River fall chinook salmon, and Lower Columbia, Mid-Columbia, Upper Columbia and Snake River steelhead will likely all be present in the river in late summer.


The agencies see the fishery as a building block in the development of a post-transition fishing plan.


“We want to get real fishermen out there in real fishing conditions,” Geoffrey Whisler, ODFW project leader, Columbia River Commercial, Select Area and Estuary Fisheries, said of the “pilot” or research seine fisheries.


He said that the use of seines on the Columbia was prohibited by the state of Washington as of 1935 and by Oregon in 1950.


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