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Editorial: Lifting gillnet ban on Columbia poorly timed move

The return of gillnets would work against state efforts to increase salmon numbers and help orcas.

By The Herald Editorial Board

While state lawmakers consider recommendations by the governor’s task force on steps to restore the population and health of Southern Resident killer whales, the state’s fish and game commission has taken a step backward in policy that could further reduce the numbers of Columbia River chinook salmon on which the orcas feed for much of the year.

In early March, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, which directs policy for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, voted to temporally lift a ban on the commercial use of gillnets on the main-stem of the lower Columbia River, from its mouth to the Bonneville Dam.

The ban was part of a compact between Washington and Oregon in 2013 that sought a transition away from the use of gillnets on the Columbia. As the name implies, gillnets are stretched across a anchored point of the river and a fishing boat and capture fish by snagging their gills as they attempt to swim through the mesh; as the fish struggles to free itself it gets further entangled. The nets are then hauled up, allowing crews to harvest hatchery fish — which can be identified by a missing fin — and separate out wild salmon that can then be released. But because of the way the net entangles the fish it can lead to injuries that lessen their chance for survival after release.

One advantage to the nets is they have been effective in harvesting hatchery fish, preventing them from moving farther up the river to the spawning grounds of wild salmon. But there are concerns the nets reduce the number of wild salmon returning to spawning grounds and why the two states approved policy in 2013 that sought the transition from gillnets to alternative gear seen as less harmful to fish.

But recent policy reviews, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, show the alternative gear so far has not been as successful, and new “off-channel” areas where gillnets were allowed have been deemed unsuitable.

Oregon fisheries officials were the first to approve an end to the gillnet ban, with Washington’s fisheries commission following along in early March.

A group of sports fishers, recreational boaters, a marine trades association, conservation groups and others, however, are protesting the policy reversal and supporting legislation that would formally bar gillnets from the lower Columbia and for Gov. Jay Inslee to step in and reverse the action by the fisheries commission. The group also opposes a change that would relax rules mandating barbless hooks, making their use voluntary.

Peter Schrappen, vice president of government affairs from the Northwest Marine Trade Association, questions the reversal on gillnets and is doubtful that the Columbia’s gillnet ban has resulted in a significant economic hardship for commercial fishers, pointing to the increase in the river’s average annual hatchery fish harvests of 140,000 for the three years before the ban, to average harvests of 184,000 for the five years after the gillnet ban was in place. Even off-channel harvests grew between the two periods, figures from supporters of the ban show.

Likewise, sport fishers have also seen an increase in their harvest on the lower Columbia, from an average of 65,000 fish between 2010-12 and 101,000 in 2013-17.

Given those numbers, Schrappen said during an interview with The Herald Editorial Board last week, the change to allow gillnets again on the lower Columbia doesn’t make sense, more so when the concern for the food supply for orcas is considered. Orcas primarily feed on chinook salmon throughout the year, and Columbia chinook in the winter through the early spring.

A ban on gillnets was not one of the proposals included among 36 recommendations made by the orca task force, though it was discussed, said Schrappen, who participated in some meetings of the effort. The gillnet ban had support among some panel members but a consensus wasn’t reached on its inclusion in the final report.

Legislation in the Senate, however, SB 5617, would ban the use of nontribal gillnets on the Columbia beginning in 2021 and establish a commercial license buyback program; it would also offer incentives for commercial fishers to switch to alternative fishing gear.

In a statement defending the commission’s action, Kelly Susewind, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, acknowledged that “gillnets are not the final answer to this problem” and that the department remained committed to new and more selective methods for the commercial harvest of salmon.

There seems limited justification to lift the ban now, especially as the state is scrambling to forge effective policies to address the decline of both salmon and orcas. Gov. Inslee should work with his counterpart in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, to reaffirm the policy adopted in 2013 and look for ways to make alternatives to gillnets effective and practical for commercial fishers. And state lawmakers, in the longer term, should approve legislation that finally makes the transition away from gillnets state law.

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