PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A proposal to ban gillnets from the main stem of the lower Columbia River would destroy the livelihood and way of life for dozens of families, commercial fishermen from Oregon and Washington said Friday.
They asked the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to delay a decision on the proposed new rules. The commission is scheduled to vote later Friday on the proposal, and Washington's fish commission is schedule to follow next week with a vote on identical rules in Olympia.
Sport fishers say gillnets are harmful to the recovery of endangered salmon.
The proposed rules requested by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber would phase in the gillnet ban over a four-year period and prioritize recreational fisheries on the river's main stem. By 2017, gillnets would be allowed only in side channels. Kitzhaber hopes to mediate a longstanding conflict between commercial and recreational fishers while transitioning to new methods of commercial fishing.
The proposal has infuriated commercial fishers, who say it'll be impossible for them to earn a living by fishing only in four limited areas where they'll be allowed to use gillnets. They say the proposed new fishing gear won't work and see the move as a ploy by recreational fishers to eliminate competition for strictly limited fish harvests.
"We're not fighting for a job or a livelihood," Joe Parker, a third-generation gillnetter from Astoria, Ore., told The Associated Press. "We're fighting for a way of life."
First used by Native American fishers long before the Lewis and Clark expedition charted the Pacific Northwest, gillnets are still the primary method of commercial fishing on the Columbia. They snag fish by the gills, preventing them from breaking free. Critics say the nets are cruel to fish and kill thousands of endangered salmon.
"Protecting and enhancing our wild steelhead and salmon benefits commercial fishers, recreational anglers, the public at large, and, most importantly, the fish," said Dave Schamp, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association's operations in Oregon.
Kitzhaber says he's committed to improving economic benefits for commercial and recreational fishers alike. He views the ban as part of a larger strategy to increase the availability of hatchery salmon in side channels and the potential legalization of alternative gear that could be allowed on the main stem Columbia.
In a letter to the commission Friday, Kitzhaber acknowledged that a lot must go right for his plan to work and asked the commission to consider backing off down the road if shared economic benefits don't materialize.
Washington is studying alternative fishing gear to see whether it is safer for endangered fish. The most-touted method is a purse seine, which encircles fish in the river then is pulled shut at the bottom to trap them. With fish still in the water, fishers can then sort out endangered fish and set them free. Gillnetters say seines require larger boats and crews and may not be profitable on the Columbia or will concentrate the catch in the hands of a few fishers with extensive experience and money to buy new equipment.
Seines are illegal in Oregon, but the Legislature is expected to consider legalizing them next year.
Kitzhaber has requested money to increase hatchery fish in areas where gillnetters would be allowed to operate, and to help them weather the economic consequences.
Fish recovery plans allocate a certain number of endangered fish that can be impacted by fish harvests. These "impacts" are divided between tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries. Tribal fisheries are not impacted by the proposed new rules.
The rules would steadily decrease impacts allocated for commercial fisheries and increase the allocations for recreational fisheries.