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A Gillnetter on the Columbia River. Photo Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

An Open Letter to Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Dave Graybill

By Brian McLachlan, Board Member

C ommissioner Graybill,

You’ve been our champion. Through countless meetings of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, the joint Policy Review Committee, and the Columbia River Workgroup, you have been the voice – often the only voice – of recreational anglers in the Columbia Basin.

You’ve pushed, prodded, and pleaded for greater conservation of imperiled ESA-listed salmon. You’ve fought tirelessly to keep non-selective non-treaty gillnets off our beloved steelhead. You’ve always objected to attempts by pro-gillnet Commissioners to take selective fishing opportunity away from public recreational anglers and give it to private, non-selective fisheries that exploit public resources for private profit. And of course, you’ve also been a champion for your home-area sport fisheries in eastern Washington.

That’s why what we’re asking of you now will take a lot of courage and require you to stay true to your principles. While pushing back against pro-gillnet forces to protect eastern Washington fisheries, please don’t abandon lower river recreational anglers.

We all know about the bad deal proposed within the Washington Commission. Pro-gillnet Commissioners have crafted a proposed policy to allow non-treaty gillnets to be used again on the lower river at any place and during any season that managers decide. While the proposal includes lip service to prioritize “selective” fisheries, the pro-gillnet plan unsurprisingly views gillnets as “selective” even though they’ve never been used in mark-selective fisheries where hatchery fish are harvested and wild fish are released alive to complete their spawning journey.

The proposed plan also significantly cuts sportfishing opportunity by increasing the allocation of the public’s non-treaty share to a handful of private commercial gillnet fishers, notwithstanding that taxpayers, ratepayers and recreational anglers (through Oregon’s Columbia River Endorsement) continue to invest millions of dollars every year to subsidize enhanced off-channel commercial fishing areas with increasing numbers of hatchery fish -- investments that benefit the gillnet fleet.

The proposed plan is a bad deal for recreational fishing and conservation in the Columbia Basin. Everyone knows it. A unified coalition of 120 recreational fishing, conservation, and sportfishing industry groups have all come out opposed to it, as have thirty-six members of the Washington State Legislature.

You’ve valiantly fought hard against the proposal the entire time. But there’s some political maneuvering afoot, and it isn’t pretty.

Pro-gillnet forces likely need a couple of eastern Washington Commissioners to vote for their plan in order for it to be approved. But the proposed plan, by giving more fish to the commercial sector, would considerably reduce the amount allocated to sport fisheries, including those in eastern Washington. For example, the proposed policy would reduce above- and below-Bonneville sport fishing opportunity for our prized spring Chinook by 12.5% annually during average runs, and up to 19% for larger run sizes, as compared to Oregon’s current rules and the original bi-state Columbia River Reform agreement.

Why would eastern Washington Commissioners vote for a plan that cuts public fishing opportunity for their constituents in eastern Washington, and instead gives those fish to private commercial gillnet interests in the lower river? How can this be in the public interest?

This is where the politics of this proposal get even messier.

A scheme’s been hatched to amend the proposed policy to increase the allocation of spring Chinook to eastern Washington, which in turn may entice eastern Washington votes. But instead of providing that increased allocation from the commercial sector’s share, the proposed amendment would take those fish from the lower river recreational fishery. While this amendment would slightly increase the average upper river recreational share of spring Chinook, the below Bonneville share would be reduced even more – going from an average 12.5% decrease under the proposed policy, to a more than 18% average annual decrease (and a more than 24% decrease at larger run sizes) under an amended plan as compared to the original bi-state agreement and current Oregon rule. Even worse, this further decrease in recreational opportunity is in addition to the significant reduction in lower river summer Chinook opportunity included in the proposed policy.

As an advocate for eastern Washington recreational fisheries, it may be tempting to vote for this amendment, but it’s a Faustian bargain. If the amendment is included in the proposed policy, it will virtually guarantee that the Washington Commission will adopt the pro-commercial policy – gillnets, cuts to sportfishing, and all. As you are well-aware, this will ignite another political firestorm among recreational anglers and in the Washington Legislature, likely damaging WDFW and the Commission’s legitimacy (and potentially their budget). In addition, passing this proposal will cause further harm to already strained relations between WDFW and ODFW -- and their respective Commissions --and may polarize up-river versus down-river interests. We know this is not the legacy you want.

On the other hand, if the amendment fails, it will be much more difficult for other eastern Washington Commissioners to vote in favor of a proposed policy that reduces fishing opportunity for their constituencies while subjecting salmon and steelhead – including those bound for eastern Washington – to additional mortalities in lower river commercial gillnet fisheries. In other words, if the amendment fails, it gives us at least a fighting chance that this misguided policy proposal may be defeated.

We know this proposed amendment presents a tough choice for you. And we recognize this will take a lot of courage and require you to stay true to your principles.

We ask that you oppose the amendment, as well as oppose the proposed policy that seeks to cut sport fishing while allowing increased non-treaty gillnetting on the mainstem Columbia. Instead, keep fighting for the fish and for the entire recreational angling community.

Respectfully, your friends at the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.

Tom VanderPlaat
Board President

Chris Hager
Executive Director

Donald Hyde
President, Columbia River Chapter, Vancouver, Washington