Sport anglers angry at tribe over gillnets

LEWISTON, Idaho — Sport anglers upset with the Nez Perce Tribe in northern Idaho for opening a gillnetting season on the Snake and Clearwater rivers say they are considering protests and boycotts of the tribe’s casinos.

“There are a lot of people upset about the idea of there being gillnets in the Snake and Clearwater,” said Jason Hollibaugh, vice chairman of the Clearwater Chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “There are going to be jet boat operators and guides that are not going to like what that is going to do to their businesses. And regular sportsmen and anglers are upset because it’s an unfair take and also going to indiscriminately kill hundreds of native steelhead.”

The tribe announced Tuesday it had started a commercial gillnetting season and was offering up to 20 commercial gillnetting permits to tribal members.

The season is set to run Mondays through Fridays until Jan. 11, and could be followed by another season that would run through mid-April.

The tribe authorized the season on the Snake River from the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state upstream to the Hells Canyon Dam on the Idaho-Oregon border. On the Clearwater, the season would be from the mouth upstream to about Orofino Bridge.

Joe Oatman, a member of the Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the tribe wants to set up meetings to explain its reasons for the gillnetting seasons and show its conservation record.

“The tribe would be pretty disappointed that people continue to hold the view that the tribe and its intent for this fishery will significantly disrupt and put people out of business,” he said. “That is something we don’t anticipate would be the end result from what amounts to our test fishery.”

The tribe, as part of an 1855 treaty it signed in exchange for giving up land, has a right to 50 percent of the harvestable fish within the reservation and from off-reservation fishing areas, but traditionally has not taken its share of steelhead.

This season, that would be 61,000 steelhead, though Oatman said it’s unlikely the tribe will come near to catching that many.

“I don’t think the tribe will get anywhere near what the tribe is entitled to in terms of harvest,” he told the Lewiston Tribune.

Hatchery and wild steelhead swim up the Columbia and Snake rivers in the fall from the Pacific Ocean, then spend the winter in the Clearwater and Snake rivers before moving again in the spring, with hatchery fish going to hatcheries and wild fish to spawning areas.

The Clearwater and Snake — favored among sport steelhead anglers — have a surplus of hatchery steelhead for fishing. But wild Snake River steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and sport anglers must release them unharmed.

The tribe has said it will develop a market for the steelhead it catches. But Hollibaugh doubted that market exists.

“Steelhead really have no commercial value at this point in their lives,” he said. “They are really only good for cat food and lawn fertilizer on a commercial standpoint. What is the real value of endangering the native steelhead runs for something as insignificant as that?”

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