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

Washington Favors Commercial Gill Nets over Anglers in New Columbia River Salmon Fisheries Policy

By Betsy Emery, Advocacy and Campaign Manager

I n a devastating blow to the Columbia River sportfishing community last Friday, 9/11, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 5-4 to amend their Columbia River salmon fisheries management policy. The new policy abandons key elements of the 2013 bi-state Columbia River Salmon Fishery Management Policy and violates the mandate for concurrent regulations put forth in the 1915 Columbia River Compact.

Despite extensive opposition from the public, 120 sportfishing and guiding organizations, conservation groups, and nearly 40 Washington state legislators, the Commission voted to do away with a “guiding principle” of the 2013 agreement: to phase out non-treaty commercial gill nets from the lower mainstem and into off-channel areas.

Washington’s new policy reduces many beloved mark-selective recreational fisheries in the lower mainstem, including spring and summer Chinook, in order to increase commercial gill net harvest allocations. The new policy allows commercial gill nets to be used at managers’ discretion during all non-treaty commercial seasons at any location in the lower Columbia River. Not only does this revision abandon a key element of the 2013 policy, it is wildly inconsistent with current Oregon regulations that restrict commercial gill nets to specific river sections during specific seasons.

Instead of prioritizing recreational fisheries over commercial fisheries when determining harvest allocations, one of the major conservation victories we secured in the 2013 agreement, the Commission increased the non-treaty commercial fishery’s allocation of spring, summer, and fall Chinook by 50% - 100% and reduced the recreational share by 12.5% - 25% from the 2013 policy, depending on season and run size. These changes are also inconsistent with Oregon’s current regulations, and if implemented, will have negative impacts on our ability to conserve and recover endangered wild salmon and steelhead stocks.

Even though almost 950,000 recreational anglers spent $1.5 billion on fishing in Washington last year, supporting rural communities and the State’s fisheries conservation budget, the Commission decided to prioritize the economic interests of a few hundred commercial gillnetters over the sportfishing community.

The Washington Commission went further by including Commissioner Graybill’s amendment into the final policy, allocating an additional portion of the lower recreational spring Chinook fishery harvest to anglers in the Washington section of the Snake River. Commissioner Graybill argued that this amendment is necessary in order to make the allocation between upriver and downriver recreational anglers more equitable.

Commissioner McIsaac was the only Commissioner that opposed Graybill’s amendment, citing a Columbia River Workgroup report that concluded Snake River recreational anglers currently receive substantially higher allocations than the lower Columbia recreational fisheries for both A and B-runs of steelhead, sockeye, and summer Chinook, suggesting that there isn’t inequity in harvest allocations between Snake River and Columbia River anglers.

Commission Chair Carpenter voted to align with the sportfishing community, opposing the proposal to reinstate gill nets on the lower mainstem. Citing his career in the commercial fishing industry, he was adamant that gill nets are not selective and expressed concern about bycatch. Conversely, Commissioner Thorburn argued that gill nets are selective when used with appropriate time, length, and mesh size regulations and voted in favor of the new policy.

Unfortunately, these different perspectives can’t be confirmed or denied because commercial gill nets have never been subjected to rigorous, comprehensive scientific studies, despite mandates to study bycatch and release mortality for any proposed fishing gear and endless requests from the conservation community.

Interestingly, while Commissioner Graybill introduced the amendment to reallocate recreational spring Chinook harvest to Snake River anglers in eastern Washington, he opposed the overall policy put forth for consideration. He showed solidarity with the sportfishing community, arguing that allowing commercial gill nets in a mixed stock fishery in advance of the mid-run update is irresponsible management, especially given weak spring and summer Chinook runs.

Commissioner Baker expressed significant concern about the break in concurrency, claiming that it is not strategic to implement a policy that will cause conflict in the fishing community when Oregon may not agree to the new regulations. She argued that with this vote, Washington is drawing a line in the sand on the especially divisive issue of commercial gill nets. She pressed for studies to confirm bycatch and release mortality rates for gill nets in various fisheries in order to defend their proposed policy. Ultimately, she opposed the proposal.

Northwest Steelheaders has consistently opposed these policy revisions and will continue to track developments. While we are working to reverse this misguided policy in Washington, we are also urging the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to remain committed to the agreements in the 2013 policy - prioritizing sportfishing allocation over commercial interests and limiting commercial gill nets to off-channel areas.