In December 2012, the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission approved the Governor’s directive to move gillnets off of the mainstem Columbia and to prioritize mainstem salmon allocation for sport fisheries. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission followed suit in January, and now both states are in the process of implementing these historic reforms, which is the start of the biggest change to Columbia River fisheries in 40 years when the Northwest Steelheaders succeeded in making steelhead a game fish via ballot measure.
The Commissions’ decisions phase out the use of gillnets in the mainstem Columbia River and moves allocation in the mainstem to a sport priority. Most all Columbia River fisheries, including spring, fall and summer chinook change from the current 50%-60% sport, to 70% during the three-year transition period, and 80% sport starting in 2017. Based on modeling done by the agencies, these will translate into more catch and longer seasons for Columbia River anglers.
While the decisions were historic, the process is far from over. The favorable Commission votes were only the first step. Gillnetters are fighting these changes tooth and nail, and have tried to block these changes through the legislator and through the courts, but we are working tirelessly to ensure the changes are implemented fully and in the prescribed timeline.
There are some other changes that occurred through this administrative process that not every angler will be happy about, including the requirement to use barbless hooks on the Columbia mainstem and a few select tributaries, reduction of tributary smolt plants to feed the Select Area Fisheries Enhancement areas where gillnetters catch the majority of their fish, and a small permit fee in Oregon to fund the changes, similar to what Washington already has in place. Steelheaders are working to ensure shift of smolt releases from the tributaries does not diminish sport harvest opportunity in these tribs. While we tried to keep from barbless and worked to ensure the new fee is minimal and used only to enhance recreational fishing opportunity, we believe barbless hooks and the permit fee are a small price to pay for the outstanding conservation benefits and increased angling opportunity.
There will be several times in the coming year where anglers will need to take action to ensure these historic changes are successfully implemented, and every angler that cares about this fishery is highly encouraged to contact their legislators to voice support for these long-overdue reforms that maximize conservation benefits for wild salmon and increase sportfishing opportunity.