This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
The latest flare-up of tension between sport anglers and commercial anglers calls to mind something said two years ago by an Oregon legislator. “What we really have here are two groups fighting over who catches the most fish — or the last fish,” Rep. Betsy Johnson warned.
While that might be a bit of hyperbole, it strikes at the heart of a renewed issue regarding the use of gillnets on the main stem of the Columbia River.
Last month, Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to temporarily lift a ban on the commercial gillnets. That would revoke a policy that has been in place since 2013, when Washington and Oregon officials banned the nets while adopting a Columbia River Reform Plan. The plan is designed to “allow for orderly fisheries, advance the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, and maintain or enhance the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry.”
For commercial anglers, gillnets are the most efficient way to achieve economic stability. Nets are stretched across the river and snag fish by the gills as they attempt to swim through. As the fish struggle to get free, they become more entangled. Nets are then hauled up, allowing anglers to harvest hatchery fish — which can be identified by a clipped fin — and release wild salmon. But the wild fish can suffer injuries from the nets that lessen the chance of survival after their release.
The idea behind the ban is to promote a transition to alternative gear that is less harmful to fish, but commercial anglers say that is a less effective way to catch fish. The issue has pitted commercial anglers, sport anglers, environmentalists, and various advocacy groups on opposite sides of the issue, with conflicting assessments about the efficiency of gillnets.
According to numbers from the Northwest Marine Trade Association, in the three years prior to the ban, the commercial harvest averaged 140,000 fish a year; in the five years since, that average has been 184,000. Sport fishers also have seen an increased harvest, going from 65,000 fish a year to 101,000.
Many factors play a role in the size of the harvest, but it is difficult to argue that the gillnet ban has resulted in economic hardship for commercial fishers. It also is difficult to argue that the ban should be rescinded. As recreational angler Larry Cassidy of Vancouver told the Columbian: “There were lots of things that they could do within the Columbia River reforms that would help the commercial fishery. None of those have been addressed.”
Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Kate Brown of Oregon both have expressed support for keeping the reforms and the ban on gillnets. The Washington Senate also is considering a bill (SB 5617) that would prohibit gillnets except for tribal fisheries. The bill, which is co-sponsored by all three Clark County senators — two Republicans and one Democrat — is currently in committee.
In 2017, commenting on the Columbia River Reform Plan, the Columbian wrote editorially: “Much to the chagrin of gillnetters, the critical mass of the sport fishery means that it makes economic and political sense for sport anglers to wield more power as the states attempt to balance competing interests.”
That assertion still holds true, and it is buoyed by a lack of evidence that the gillnet ban has harmed commercial anglers. Leaders in both Washington and Oregon should seek ways to assist commercial anglers. Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Commission should maintain the ban on harmful gillnets.