Fish face-off

A proposal to ban gillnets in Oregon has commercial fishermen up in arms.

  • Gillnet fisherman on the Columbia River.

    Coastal Conservation Association
  • A Columbia River sturgeon that had most of its gill plate torn off in its escape from a gillnet. A measure planned for the 2012 Oregon ballot proposes a total ban on gillnet fishing.

    Coastal Conservation Association

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"(Gillnets are) basically too effective to be used in a river as heavily managed as the Columbia," argues Brian Irwin, regional executive director for the Pacific Northwest chapters of the Coastal Conservation Association. An Oregon native, Irwin is an avid sports fisherman and hunter. He left a career in sales to lead the CCA about a year and a half ago, after wealthy angler and rod designer Gary Loomis brought the organization to the region. CCA has successfully banned or restricted gillnets in 10 states outside the West over the last 30 or so years.

Irwin believes that you can’t save salmon and steelhead without dealing with gillnets first. He compares the fish to a man with cancer and a broken arm who has just fallen into a pool and is drowning. "What do you do first?" he asks. It’s a question with an obvious answer, one he hopes will resonate with Oregon voters.

But state officials say banning gillnets won’t help wild salmon. The system governs only how many wild salmon can die each season -- not how they die. So removing gillnets without finding an effective alternative would likely only increase the amount of fish available to sports fishermen.

"Whether they are taken by hook and line, or whether they are taken by gillnet, you are still only allowed X-number of dead fish," says Steve Williams, assistant administrator of the Fish Division of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "If there was no commercial fishery, would those (allowances) be used by the sport fishery? Yes."

Irwin counters that eliminating gillnets would still benefit salmon and other fish by cutting down on bycatch -- fish in the net that are either too small or not the target species -- because fish that must be thrown back have low survival rates. Gillnet fishermen reply that the state already accounts for those impacts when setting harvests. Still, Irwin insists that better tools for commercial fishing will mean a healthier river and better fishing opportunities for everyone.

But it’s not clear what those better tools would be. Oregon’s attorney general considered the group’s first attempt at a gillnet ban for this year’s ballot to be an all-out ban on commercial fishing on the Columbia because it forbade both gillnets and tangle nets and offered no alternative. As a result, CCA scrapped it. In this next campaign, Irwin hints that the group may float beach seines and purse seines, which are designed to corral schools of fish for selective capture with handheld nets, as possible alternatives. But even if they prove effective for non-schooling fish like salmon, the switch could drive some fishermen out of business because of the prohibitive expense of replacing equipment and boats.

The CCA’s new effort -- which it will promote with millions of dollars’ worth of ads and outreach -- is supported by unnamed wealthy backers and some 9,000 dues-paying members in the Pacific Northwest’s 27 chapters. They’re rod-and-reel types ranging from tweed-jacket hobbyists to guides paid $175-a-head to escort vacationing corporate flacks. Sport fishing is a massive industry in Oregon, generating $74.3 million in 2008.

That community is a force to be reckoned with for the 300 gillnetters licensed to fish the Columbia River in Oregon. Concerned by the growing intensity of the debate, and the shifting balance of power, tribes with interests in the Columbia, most of whom fish with gillnets, have taken the unusual step of choosing a side. A gillnet ban could threaten treaty-based agreements by changing the way fish are allocated, says Charles Hudson, public affairs manager for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "If they are successful in getting rid of the lower river fisherman, it’s unlikely that it will stop there," Hudson notes, worrying that hatchery funding could eventually be diverted from restoration to boosting sports catch.

It remains to be seen whether the tribes or other entities -- including the Oregon Restaurant Association, a sometime ally of commercial fishermen –– will formally oppose a ballot measure. Commercial fishermen are unsettled by the prospect of battling the financially hefty CCA in a public campaign. "It’s a much different fight, there’s no question," says Bruce Buckmaster, a board member of Salmon for All, an advocacy group that represents commercial fishermen in front of state fish commissions and legislators.

Fick is worried about Astoria. The local fishing economy helps pay for the local Little League, the library and the new community swimming pool. He sweeps an arm toward Astoria, the fish markets and the historic downtown, the three-story houses climbing into the Coastal Range. "This is all much more important to me than to have a sports fishermen or a guide catch three fish a day instead of two fish a day," he says. "When your livelihood is threatened and your community’s livelihood is threatened, you do worry."

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