Changes Made To Columbia Reforms By WDFW Commission

UPDATED 5:45 P.M. with reaction from the sportfishing and conservation world at bottom

In a close vote this afternoon, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to make major changes to Columbia salmon reforms, changing sport-commercial allocations and surely giving WDFW budget issues next year and further challenging concurrency with Oregon.


It drew immediate anger from sportfishing and boating organizations who’d lobbied members of the citizen panel not to undo hard-won gains, but through a late amendment it does offer more spring Chinook for Snake River fishermen.

The 5-4 vote culminates a five-year review of policies that were approved seven years ago and that Commissioner Don McIsaac said had identified numerous failures, including hatchery production, a decline in the value of commercial catches and netter buyback programs, and even saw a decline in recreational salmon fishing trips below Bonneville Dam despite the plan’s sport prioritization of Chinook.


It also allows gillnets to be used for spring and summer kings, in McIsaac’s telling during years of larger returns at the discretion of Columbia salmon managers.

He described gillnetting as a bridge to alternative selective commercial gear in the future and said it would also help with reducing how many hatchery fish are making it onto the gravel to spawn with wild salmon and steelhead, a concern he has due given an upcoming review by NOAA that could impact production.

Also voting in favor were Commissioners Bob Kehoe, Molly Linville, Jim Anderson and Kim Thorburn.

Sportfishing groups have vigorously opposed changing spring, summer and fall Chinook allocations that had been set by a 2013 agreement between the states, but Kehoe, who is also the executive director of the Puget Sound Purse Seiners Association, said moving to abundance-based metrics still provided recreational anglers with the “vast majority of impacts” on ESA-listed kings during low years.

Vice Chair Barbara Baker indicated she would have voted on the “substance” of the policy change, but was a no because of the timing.

She said her primary concern was concurrency with Oregon on how to manage the shared Columbia.

“Every vote we take moves us further from them,” she said.

Commissioner Dave Graybill was a hard no, expressing over and over his conservation concerns about the impact of gillnets on depressed and ESA-listed Upper Columbia spring Chinook and summer steelhead runs.

“They are in very serious trouble,” he said.

He termed allowing gillnetting on the Columbia for springers before the mid-May runsize update “irresponsible,” and pointed to runs in recent years that have come in below forecast.

Nontreaty commercial spring fisheries have otherwise been prosecuted with tangle nets; the last nontreaty summer king fisheries in 2016 allowed gillnets.

Yet even as Graybill voted no, his amendment transferring 5 percent of the sport springer quota from below Bonneville to the Snake River was approved.

Since he pitched the idea earlier this month, he was lobbied hard by Lower Columbia organizations not to do so.

They called it a “Faustian bargain” to secure the votes for the overall changes from the other two Eastside commissioners.

But Graybill said it came in response to request from inland anglers, the Snake River Salmon Recovery Board and county commissioners in Southeast Washington for a “more equitable share of spring salmon.”

“This was brought to my attention as early as 2014 and we’re finally addressing the policy today,” said Graybill.

At the same time, that 5 percent also comes out of a share shared by Portland and other Northwest Oregon anglers, presenting a further concurrency challenge.

Chair Larry Carpenter, who was heavily involved in commercial fishing and industry for decades and acknowledged its importance to the state and those who practice it, also worried about what the change would mean for joint management.

And its impact in the state legislature come next session.

The commission’s March 2019 vote essentially led to the scuttling of a WDFW fishing and hunting fee increase that looked like it might pass that year, as well as the end of the Columbia salmon and steelhead endorsement, both of which hurt the agency and impacted upriver fisheries.

Around three dozen or so state lawmakers had urged the commission not to tweak the reforms, including a couple key senators.

Earlier Baker had suggested making a motion to table the matter and Carpenter said he would support a “timeout” because approving the proposal would make for a “bigger problem than solution.”

Then he called for a vote and one by one he and fellow members put their stamps on one of the commission’s biggest decisions in some time.

Reaction from the sportfishing and conservation world:

Brad Throssell, Washington Council of Trout Unlimited

“We’re deeply disappointed with today’s vote by Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission on the updated Columbia River Salmon Fishery Management Policy (C-3620). This policy, as introduced and moved to a vote by Commissioner McIsaac, represents a serious change of direction on Columbia River fishery policy, and one that puts critical fish species at risk”.

“Without directives—not recommendations—to management, regular on-board vessel monitoring, and the necessary studies to understand mortality impacts from his non-selective fishery, the future of steelhead and salmon fisheries in the Columbia Basin are in jeopardy. We do applaud the opposition to this policy from Chair Carpenter and Commissioners Smith, Graybill, and Baker, and their points of concern that include gillnets being considered non-selective, concurrence issues with Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s fishery policies, and recognizing that this new policy is a bigger problem than it is a solution. Despite their objections, the policy change was adopted on a 5-4 vote by the commission.”

Nello Picinich, Coastal Conservation Association of Washington

“This vote today is a big step backward in the conservation of our precious salmon and steelhead. Despite this setback on the Washington side of the river, we are more committed than ever to eliminate the use of non-tribal gillnets in the mainstem and prioritize selective recreational fisheries.” 

Liz Hamilton, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association

“The sportfishing and boating industry in Washington employ over 18,000 people, many in rural parts of the state. These policy changes will harm hundreds of businesses, large and small, across the Pacific Northwest.”

Chris Hager, Association of Northwest Steelheaders

“Interestingly, this whole process was started under the guise of achieving concurrency with Oregon. Today’s vote actually results in the states being further apart than ever. We will be turning our attention to the Oregon Commission and remain hopeful that they will stand firm on their commitment to the resource and the hundreds of thousands of recreational fishers in Oregon.” 

Peter Schrappen, Northwest Marine Trade Association

“This serves as a reminder about the importance of communicating these concerns with legislators. Now is a good time to reach out and schedule a phone call or virtual meeting with your elected officials and urge them to reverse this decision.” 

CORRECTION, 12:42 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020: Bob Kehoe was misidentified as the vice president of the Puget Sound Purse Seiners Association. He is in fact its executive director.