ODFW to Begin Rule-Making Process for Lower Columbia River Fisheries Management Commission Approves Governor’s Gillnet Proposal

By Terry Dillman

Staffers from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife
(ODFW) are venturing into well-charted but controversy-infested waters as they
prepare to sail into a rule-making process designed to weigh anchor on Gov.
John Kitzhaber’s proposal to reform fisheries management on the lower Columbia
The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) members
opted to back Kitzhaber during an Aug. 14 teleconference focused only on the
governor’s proposed solution to the on-going, complex and intense conflicts
between commercial and recreational fishermen over salmon allocations in the
lower Columbia River, as well as with conservation groups opposed to
gillnetting. In an Aug. 9 letter to ODFW Director Roy Elicker and OFWC
Chairwoman Bobby Levy, Kitzhaber outlined a compromise designed to phase
gillnets out of the mainstem Columbia rather than ban them completely.
“Lower Columbia River recreational and commercial
fisheries are vital to the social and economic fabric of our state and local
communities, providing valuable jobs and millions of dollars of economic
activity,” Kitzhaber wrote, noting that “optimizing the economic value of these
fisheries within a conservation-based framework” is one of his priorities,
although it is caught in the same net as high-profile reform issues such as
health care and education.
Brent Brownscombe, the governor’s natural resources
adviser, participated in the teleconference, providing an overview of the issue
and the governor’s perspective on it and answering specific questions from the
Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead within the
Columbia River Basin are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA),
which means all fisheries face significant limits due to low abundance and
required survival of ESA-listed fish. Oregon’s long-term plan is the recovery
of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead populations to levels that would support
what Kitzhaber called “robust fisheries” across the state. Unfortunately, it
has resulted in what the governor termed as “perennial and divisive conflicts”
between commercial and recreational fisheries over the allocation of harvest
impacts, along with the use of gillnets in non-tribal commercial fisheries in
the river’s mainstem.
Attempts to reconcile those differences have proven
almost futile, and many observers say Kitzhaber’s directive – based primarily
on a compromise that sport fishermen put forward several years ago – is the
governor’s answer to Measure 81 on the November ballot that, if voters approve
it, would ban all commercial gillnets and tangle nets in Oregon’s inland
waterways. Under the motto “for salmon, for wildlife, for jobs,” members of
Portland-based Stop Gillnets Now (SGN) and others gathered 142,000 signatures
to get the initiative, also known as the Protect Our Salmon Act, on the ballot.
The measure’s supporters say it would ban the use of
“indiscriminate” gillnets on the Columbia River, yet still allow commercial
fishing using “more sustainable practices,” such as purse seines.
They say it would protect the river’s wild salmon and
steelhead, keep tribal fishing rights intact, retain the allocations for both
commercial and recreational fisheries, and preserve the commercial fishery
through required alternatives, such as seine nets and other selective gear that
allows for the harvest of hatchery fish and protects endangered wild salmon and
steelhead populations. They point to a 2009 Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife (WDFW) pilot project focused on gillnet alternatives, which also
included participation by ODFW.
An August 2010 news release from ODFW quotes John North,
the agency’s Columbia River fisheries manager. “Development of viable fishing
gear that can selectively remove hatchery fish would not only benefit
commercial fisheries, but may also contribute to the recovery of wild salmon
stocks on the Columbia river by reducing interactions with hatchery fish,” he
Kitzhaber’s directive also features the use of selective
gear and fishing techniques “to minimize mortality of ESA-listed and non-target
fish and optimize recovery.” The governor made it clear that he believes the
use of gillnets in non-tribal mainstem fisheries is at odds with that
Brownscombe told OFWC members that while Kitzhaber is not
fundamentally opposed to gillnets, “it’s a mater of place” and whether or not
the commercial fishery can switch its focus to hatchery fish. The governor said
the matter is best resolved by a combined effort by the Oregon and Washington
fish and wildlife commissions, not through a ballot measure.
Kitzhaber noted that he wants “a long-term solution to
this contentious issue – one that enhances fisheries while minimizing mortality
of wild fish to promote fish recovery, honors tribal commitments and optimizes
economic benefits.”
“The long-term solution must enhance the economic
vitality of both recreational and commercial fisheries, which provide the
public with benefits, including recreation, family-wage jobs and businesses,
local commerce and export economies, nationally-renowned culinary destinations
and the Pacific Northwest’s uniquely high quality of life and culture,” the
governor wrote. “Proposals that fail to enhance benefits for both recreational
and commercial interests in the lower Columbia within a conservation framework
are an unacceptable solution, as is the status quo.”
Finding a workable solution could prove daunting.
Brownscombe said the issue features “no shortage of
history and conflicts.”
Both Oregon and Washington initiated measures to regulate
the commercial salmon fishery as early as the 1870s, but conflicting
regulations often hampered efforts to properly manage the resource. In 1915,
the two states forged the Columbia River Compact. Adopted by the US Congress in
1918, the compact made the states co-managers of all Columbia River fisheries.
It and the joint management staff from ODFW and WDFW still provide principal
management of those fisheries, in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, the US Fish
and Wildlife Service, Idaho Fish and Game, the four treaty tribes and the
Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. During the ensuing decades, other
commercial activities – mining, logging, grazing and irrigation diversions –
led to pollution and ever-increasing conflicts with a full-scale commercial
salmon fishery.
The river’s salmon fishery now is one of the world’s most
highly regulated fisheries, and numerous attempts to reconcile conflicts and
resolve the river’s “salmon crisis” via various committees, commissions and
councils have fallen short. Oregon and Washington representatives were
tantalizingly close to agreeing on new gillnet rules in 2008, but Brownscombe
said the effort failed as the process broke down due to escalating tensions between
and objections from commercial and recreational fishery groups.
Efforts were scheduled to resume in 2013, but the success
of getting Measure 81 on the November ballot spawned an earlier try by
Basically, the governor wants to phase out commercial
gillnets from the river’s mainstem during a three-year transition (2013 to
2016) and move them into off-channel areas that would be enhanced to raise more
hatchery fish for commercial fishermen, who could only fish in the main channel
if they use alternative or selective fishing gear. A clear transition period,
Kitzhaber noted, “is a central part of this solution…to span the time needed
for the new investments in off-channel areas to occur and provide returns
necessary to the vitality of the commercial fishery.”
Kitzhaber cited the OFWC as the proper venue to initiate
“immediate significant steps” toward that goal.
He asked the commissioners to initiate a public
rulemaking process to work toward adopting “a solution that achieves the key
elements” of his proposal. He directed them to work with their counterparts in
Washington, and to begin the process immediately to complete the needed
rulemaking before the end of 2012.
The commission agreed.
Stop Gillnetting Now spokesman Jeremy Wright called the
acknowledgement by the governor and the commission “a remarkable change.” While
retaining “a healthy and understandable skepticism,” Wright said the group
would participate in the rulemaking process.
David Reinhard, spokesman for Salmon for All, an
association of gillnetters, fish buyers, processors and associated businesses
founded in 1958, also weighed in. He said they need to retain mainstem fishing
because off-channel areas can’t be enhanced enough to replace lost fishing
Reinhard said they disagreed with some particulars of the
governor’s approach, but agreed that the OFWC was the proper venue to pursue
the matter. He called Measure 81 “poor fishery management policy” that would
cost jobs in Oregon’s commercial fishing industry and deny Oregonians access to
Columbia River salmon.
“Measure 81 is about politics, not policy,” Reinhard
said. “Collaboration among tribal, sports and commercial fishermen working with
state, federal and tribal officials is the best way to develop fisheries
Terry Dillman can be reached at tdwordwright@gmail.com.