The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association is applauding a bill introduced today in Washington’s Senate that would phase out nontribal gill nets in state waters by 2023.
Liz Hamilton, the organization’s executive director, called SB 5617 “a powerful affirmation of the Columbia River harvest reforms passed by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2012” and said it would expand those to include Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor and Puget Sound.
Most of the Columbia reforms — moving the nontribal commercial fleet to off-channel areas in the lower river; testing new net gear; and reallocating recreational spring, summer and fall Chinook catches — were being gradually implemented per an agreed-to plan between the states.
But Oregon interests have been balking since 2017, and funding the buyout of gillnetters has “languished” all along.
However, the struggles of the region’s starving southern resident killer whales and recent election in a Seattle suburb of a pro-fishing senator, ousting a longtime pro-commercial one, appear to have put fresh wind in the effort’s sails.
“At a time when Washington’s two most iconic creatures, orca and salmon, are at critically low levels, this bill represents an important part of the solution,” said Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline), the bill’s prime sponsor, in a press release. “Without legislation and funding, (the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) was unable to implement this part of the plan, creating uncertainty about the reforms. SB 5617 removes any doubt about our state’s commitment to the conservation and economic benefits envisioned in the reforms.”
His bill would buy out and permanently retire gillnetting licenses but nontribal commercial fishermen could still use “mark selective harvest techniques that are capable of the unharmed release of wild and endangered salmon while selectively harvesting hatchery-reared salmon.”
It was cosponsored by a whopping 24 senators — nearly half of the upper chamber’s entire roster — with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle getting on board, 17 Democrats, seven Republicans.
Its route through the legislature would take it through the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee, which is chaired by one of the sponsors, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege. The House side might be more of a challenge, however.
Still, Hamilton said NSIA was grateful to see the Columbia reforms rolling forward again.
“The lack of funding for implementation has created needless uncertainty, taking focus away from other important work our industry and region must accomplish for salmon and orca,” she said. “Governor Inslee has outlined a bold and ambitious recovery plan for orca, and Columbia River salmon are an essential food source.”
A state-federal analysis last year found that fall Chinook from Lower Columbia tribs such as the Cowlitz, Lewis and Kalama, upriver brights from the Mid- and Upper Columbia and Snake, and springers from both the lower river and Idaho were among four of the 10 most important feedstocks for southern resident killer whales.
“We applaud Sen. Salomon and his 23 cosponsors for their leadership on this issue,” said Hamilton.
She was echoed by local representatives of the Coastal Conservation Association.
“The use of gill nets in state salmon fisheries has been controversial for decades and now is the time to remove them state-wide, before it is simply too late,” said iconic rodmaker and regional CCA founder Gary Loomis in a press release. “We applaud the senators who have signed onto the bill and urge all of our elected officials in the state of Washington to seize this moment to ensure our iconic salmon fisheries have the best opportunity to survive for future generations.”