Initiative to Remove of Gillnets from the Columbia River

Initiative to Remove of Gillnets from the Columbia River

Since 2013, a coalition of sportfishing organizations has attempted to pass legislation prohibiting gillnetting for salmon and steelhead in the main stem of the lower Columbia River in Oregon.

Prohibition would restrict the non-tribal commercial fishery to terminal fishing areas of the river designated under the Select Area Fishery Enhancement (SAFE) program, all of which are in the first 30 miles of the river. Gillnets are harmful to the river system because they are indiscriminate in terms of what they kill.

Gillnetting can catch unmarked salmon, non-target species of endangered fish as well as other birds and mammals that get tangled in them. The issue is not isolated to Oregon’s waterways. Gillnets are a widely used commercial fishing method from the California coast to North Carolina and, in most instances, are a major risk factor to fisheries and wildlife.

Our Position

ASA does not support destructive fishing gear or destructive fishing practices and therefore supports the Oregon Governor’s initiative and that of the Oregon and Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to remove non-tribal gillnets from the main stem of the Columbia River.

The Issue

In early 2013, both the Oregon and Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissions approved a four year transition plan to phase out main stem commercial gillnetting for salmon and sturgeon in the Columbia River. The gillnet fleet will be transitioned into bay and slough SAFE areas  where larger releases of juvenile salmon will return to provide for increased commercial catches to compensate for the loss of catches of spring and summer Chinook in the main stem.

In addition, the commercial fishery for wild and hatchery upriver bright Chinook salmon and other strains of hatchery salmon will be converted to a purse seine and beach seine fishery to enhance the selective release of protected species that are incidentally caught. The state of Washington upheld this ruling in August 2013 when a lawsuit brought by commercial gillnetters challenging the rule was thrown out.

In March 2013, the Oregon Commission revisited their entire decision in order to fix process issues with the earlier vote raised by the suit. The gillnetters then refiled their suit, seeking an emergency stay and laying out their grounds on the case. In October 2013, the Court Commissioner denied the stay and indicated the Gillnetters were not likely to prevail. The gillnetters filed their final reply brief on March 3, 2014.

As the court did not grant a stay of the rules, both Oregon and Washington moved directly into year two of implementation. The allocation transfers from commercial to sport are gradual, arriving at 80-20 in the year 2017. The required gear shift from gillnets to purse seines is proving to be a challenging transition. A mortality study completed for purse seines produced a mortality rate similar to small mesh gillnets which, if accurate, is problematic when requiring the purchase of all new gear and boats outside of the terminal areas. There are flaws in the purse seine study, which warrant review and the same level of scrutiny currently targeted at research on mortality rates of small mesh gillnets.

As expected, the gillnetters continue to fight the plan with every avenue available to them. Since a large part of the plan was the push to change from gillnets to purse seines, the mortality study has added fuel to the gillnetter’s efforts to turn back the clock. There has not been a final determination from the Administrative Judge.