OPINION: Kitzhaber Plan for Columbia River Commercial Fishery is Misguided

By Robert Sudar
When Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announced on
August 8th that he would be asking the Oregon Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W)
Commission to draft plans for moving the commercial non-Indian gillnet fishery
out of the mainstem Columbia River and into off-channel “SAFE” areas, it caught
everyone in the industry by surprise. Commercial fishermen have been focused on
defeating Oregon Initiative 81, promoted by various sportfishing groups and
funded primarily by Norman Brenden, a Vancouver businessman. Governor Kitzhaber
is suggesting that voters turn down the initiative and instead back his plan.
Most of the coverage so far of Kitzhaber’s plan
has been based on statements from his office, from the Oregon Commission, and
from a few of the major players in the issue. He claims that his plan is a
conservation-based approach to, in his words, eliminate the “perennial and
divisive conflicts” between user groups. In reality, it’s just another
political approach to turning the wonderful salmon runs of the Columbia over to
sportfishing interests. The true conservation plans are the various Salmon
Recovery Plans developed in Oregon and Washington with public input and
stakeholder involvement over a period of several years, and accepted by the
National Marine Fisheries Service. Governor Kitzhaber’s proposal should have
similar vetting, rather than proposing a rush to rulemaking over a couple of
months. An Environmental Impact Statement also seems like a reasonable
requirement for such a massive change in where and how fisheries will take
All current gillnet openings on the Columbia pass
the conservation test. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be allowed under Endangered
Species Act (ESA) guidelines, since some ESA listed stocks of salmon or
steelhead are present in the Columbia during almost all times of the year. The
fleet has adapted tangle nets and added recovery boxes to their spring Chinook
fishery, along with shortened net soak times, to lower the mortality rate to 14
percent for released wild fish. This compares favorably to the 10 percent rate
applied to the sport fishery, and was determined in a study using the gear on
the Columbia in the spring, whereas the sport rate comes from a study in the
Willamette River.
During other times of the year, the commercial
fleet uses zone closures and mesh size restrictions to avoid protected fish,
such as in the August Chinook fishery. This last summer the fleet harvested more
than 20,000 Chinook in (9) 9-hour openings by fishing primarily above the Lewis
River (near Woodland) and using 9-inch mesh, so they could target healthy wild
upriver bright stocks headed to the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia, stay
above the protected lower river hatchery stocks, and pass steelhead through
their nets.
Governor Kitzhaber wants to expand hatchery
programs to existing and new SAFE areas in an effort to maintain the economic
value of the commercial fishery to lower Columbia River communities where most
of the fishermen live. That’s an ambitious goal – almost 65 percent of the
landed value of the gillnet fleet presently comes from their mainstem fishery.
The first challenge revolves around funding. A proposal in the Oregon
Legislature in 2011 was killed in committee when it was made clear that there
was no funding to increase hatchery production. In addition, other possible
SAFE areas were explored in the past and none were found to be viable, either
in Oregon or Washington, primarily due to poor returns, straying of hatchery
fish to areas where they weren’t wanted, and the presence of ESA fish from the
Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing
Industry Association (NSIA) has stated that this is a good plan because it
falls in line with the development of the Young’s Bay SAFE area by Astoria in
1994 as a replacement for mainstem gillnet fisheries. The commercial industry
never agreed that Young’s Bay or similar off-channel fisheries would replace
the mainstem fishery – it would only be a supplementation. In reality,
enhancement was being done at Young’s Bay by local fishermen long before 1994.
The only difference is that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) agreed
then to fund the Young’s Bay program as partial mitigation for salmon killed by
the hydropower system. It has been a struggle in recent years to maintain that
funding, and BPA says their contribution will end by 2017.
Some reporters have said that conservation groups
have supported the removal of gillnets from the mainstem. In the past twenty
years, one initiative in Oregon and two in Washington that would have
eliminated gillnetting have been on the ballot. All of those were soundly
defeated by more than 60 percent of voters, largely because the conservation
and environmental community recognized that these initiatives are political
allocation issues and have nothing to do with rebuilding the resource. The only
conservation group that has signed on to the current initiative is the Humane
Society. Their primary involvement has been protecting sea lions at Bonneville
Dam. Another group that uses “conservation” in their name – the Coastal
Conservation Association (CCA) – is a sportfishing organization and nothing
Governor Kitzhaber says his proposal will minimize
mortality of wild fish and promote recovery. There is no mention in the plan of
allowing the commercial quota of incidental mortalities of protected stocks to
pass on up the river to spawn. That quota would simply be transferred to the
sports community, giving them a larger harvest and a longer season.
The word “indiscriminate” has been applied by
supporters of the Governor’s plan and the initiative when describing the
gillnet fishery on the Columbia. ODFW has observers onboard commercial vessels
during most commercial openings. The handling of target and non-target salmon
stocks is recorded and used in the calculation of impacts on ESA stocks. The
fishermen are able, time and again, to harvest their quotas without being
halted due to excessive bycatch. Catch of non-target species and birds is also
tracked. The Columbia fishery has the best ranking for bird interactions with
nets – it’s totally a non-factor, as is lost nets on the river.
From a buyer’s perspective, the Columbia River
harvest is important because it is composed primarily of Chinook and Coho, two
of the preferred salmon in the marketplace. The fish are big because many
stocks have to negotiate hundreds of miles of river to reach their natal
streams, and they have high fat content, too. That gives them excellent eating
qualities. The salmon from the SAFE areas are fine fish, but they are smaller,
especially the Chinook – 12- to 15-lb average versus 14- to 22-lb in the
mainstem. The fishermen can tell the difference, as can knowledgeable fish vendors
and consumers. In addition, the majority of the SAFE production is Coho,
whereas most of the mainstem harvest is Chinook – Governor Kitzhaber has not
addressed how his plan would overcome that imbalance.
While Puget Sound Coho and Chinook were designated
“sport priority” species almost 20 years ago, the Columbia Chinook and Coho are
the primary inland salmon of those species that are available via commercial
non-Indian harvest. They are local fish harvested by local fishermen and
available to local markets in Washington and Oregon less than a day after
harvest. That is a huge benefit to the non-fishing residents of both states,
especially in light of the recent movement to local, natural foods. To suggest
that the consumer should be satisfied with hatchery fish from lower river
side-channels, or Alaskan fish, or farmed fish, is a slap in the face to the
fish-buying public.
Governor Kitzhaber’s plan does provide for the use
of seines in the Columbia by commercial fishermen, but the ability of the
fishermen to switch to that gear has yet to be proven on an economic basis, and
even in terms of harvest volume. Testing has been going on for three years and
the gear does catch fish and allow the release of non-target stocks, but there
are issues yet to be resolved. What is the mortality rate for handled and
released fish? How many impacts on ESA stocks will be needed by a seine
fishery, even if the mortality rate is lower? Where will those impacts come
from? How do the fishermen switch to the new gear since very few of the boats
used on the Columbia can be converted to seining? And how many fishermen could
the seine harvest support? Until questions like those can be answered it is
premature to expect a meaningful conversion to commercial seining on the lower
Despite the many concerns about the Kitzhaber plan
amongst Columbia River gillnetters, it is moving ahead. The ODF&W has
agreed to consider it, as has the Washington Commission. A panel of
commissioners from both states, along with two sports and two commercial
representatives from each side of the Columbia, will be meeting in Olympia on
September 21st and in Salem on October 22 to consider implementation. It’s
difficult to understand how the Governor’s proposal is the conservation-based
plan that will create the salmon recovery he suggests is his goal. It seems
more likely that he is attempting to force a political resolution in favor of
sport fishermen in a longstanding controversy where the sportfishing industry
has been trying to gain a complete monopoly of the non-Indian fishery. The
issue has withstood the test of voter initiatives and factual discussion in
years past but it’s too soon to know if those facts will play any role in this
new conversation.
Columbia River Commercial
fisherman and buyer Robert Sudar has served as commercial adviser to the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the last 20 years.