Changes To Columbia Salmon Reforms Worry Anglers

Lower Columbia salmon anglers are increasingly concerned that key fishery reforms are in danger of “abandonment” as Washington overseers consider making changes to nontreaty commercial allocations and allowable net gear on the big river.

A final decision appears likely before the end of summer, but yesterday Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Spotfishing Industry Association, fired a broadside in the direction of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in hopes of heading it off.

“Is it the best public policy to try to turn back the clock, repeal fundamental elements of the Reform Policy, and reignite conflicts with stakeholders, landowners, the conservation community, and elected officials?” she wrote in a letter, which continues:

“The proposed policy revisions would provide less conservation of wild stocks, decrease the overall economic benefits of the fishery to the State of Washington, harm jobs in the sportfishing industry, and erode public trust and confidence in WDFW and the Commission. Is this really the best ‘path for a new era’?”


The nine-member citizen panel will hold a public hearing via Zoom Friday afternoon on proposed changes to the reforms, which Washington and Oregon agreed to back in 2013 and were a major breakthrough in Columbia fishery management.

But they’ve been on shakier and shakier ground and now Hamilton says what’s in the hopper would essentially apply “a 1940 management regime on a 2020 fishery that’s vastly changed over 80 years.”

At least 13 of the Columbia’s salmon and steelhead runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act as vast alterations to their habitat along with other plagues have come home to roost, requiring careful management of what fisheries can still be held. Most target more abundant hatchery stocks, though harvest is allowed on the few healthy wild runs.

There are two primary changes being proposed:

One is that nontreaty fishermen would be allowed to use gillnets on the Lower Columbia to catch spring, summer and fall Chinook, and coho. A central tenet of the reforms was phasing gillnetting out of the mainstem to off-channel areas near the mouth, and that alternative gear be developed in its place, ideas that can be traced in part as far back as the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 1995 proposed recovery plan for Snake River salmon.

But an implementation pause several years ago kept gillnets available for fall kings. Last year a total of 8,148 were caught during four separate August nontreaty gillnet openers and one in October.

(Seven are scheduled for next month and early September.)

Secondly, set sport-commercial allocations would switch to abundance-based metrics that determine how much each user group could catch, dropping from 80 percent for recreation fishermen during low returns of springers to 65 percent during higher ones. On average most runs would fall in the 70 percent category, representing a decrease from the current set 75 percent.

For summer kings, the metrics range from 80 percent for low runs to 60 percent for big ones; currently it is a set 80 percent.

Under the reforms, fall bright and tule allocations were to end up at 80-20 but that has since slid to no greater than 70 percent for sports and no less than 30 percent for commercials.

(Allocations actually are a measure of fishery impacts to ESA-listed runs; the feds allow seasons to occur if mortalities of wild Chinook are kept under certain percentages, and those percentages are split between the user groups.)

Back before the reforms – born out of compromise by then Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in 2012 to hold off a statewide vote banning gillnets — the allocations were 60/65-35/40, 50-50 and 50-50 for spring, summer and fall kings.

In her letter to the Washington commission, Hamilton worries about the trickle-down economic impacts from changes that could lead to a “reduction of sportfishing by as much as 25%.”

“From boat builders in Clarkston, to rod manufacturers in Woodland, to tackle manufacturers in Longview, Snohomish and Selah, to name just a few, Columbia River sport fisheries sustain small businesses across our great State,” she writes.

Then there is the “deteriorating management environment” between WDFW and ODFW during teleconferences to discuss fisheries on the shared Columbia, keynoted by June’s unexpected and deeply perplexing disagreement on holding a keeper sturgeon opener.

She also reserves a solid portion of her gunpowder for conservation.

“Sport anglers, conservationists, landowners, and many elected officials do not understand the logic of increasing mainstem nontreaty gillnetting … Especially when sockeye returns to Idaho are currently less than 40% of the ten-year average; steelhead over Lower Granite are currently less than 30% of the ten year average; returns of the truly magnificent and once abundant wild B-Run steelhead have dropped into the hundreds; and in 2019, wild spring Chinook returned to Idaho at their lowest levels since 1999,” Hamilton writes. 

Those in favor of changing the reforms argue they were meant to be “adaptive,” that is, they were not set in stone but reshapable as parts either succeeded or failed.

Following appointment of a subgroup of Fish and Wildlife Commission members from Washington and Oregon, a review found that elements such as coming up with viable alternative commercial gear, and expanding off-channel opportunities for gillnetters and increasing hatchery releases there “did not occur as expected,” according to a WDFW staff report.

“Thus, the current process to reconsider phasing out gill net fishing
gear and the 80%/20% allocation shifts is consistent with the stated purpose and adaptive management provisions of the Policy adopted in 2013,” summarizes a one-page document that was written by Commissioner Bob Kehoe, who is also executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners’ Association, and state Attorney General Office’s Joe Panesko, and reviewed by other commissioners and agency staffers.

Even as Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission will take public comment tomorrow afternoon, there has been a lot already.

A WDFW staff summary of those suggests that the recreational angling public has been weighing in heavily, with 95 percent of commenters expressing concern about the proposal, 100 percent supporting recreational Chinook priority, 99 percent expressing concern about gillnetting and 89 percent supporting alternative gear development.

Several commercial seafood organizations sent the commission letters supporting the changes, while the list of those in opposition included Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan Counties, the Wild Fish Conservancy and angler Brian McLachlan, among others.

McLachlan, a Portland angler who grew up around Lake Washington, directly challenged Commissioner Don McIsaac, seen as driving the changes on the Evergreen State side and the retired head of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, to answer a series of pointed questions.

Those included, what is the public’s interest in reallowing nontreaty gillnets on the mainstem for Chinook and coho compared to not doing so, and are there are any conservation benefits or costs therein?

McIsaac will have a chance to address those tomorrow, if he hasn’t already in writing.

As it stands, it appears that a decision on the proposed changes is likely to now be made at the commission’s September meeting.

Meanwhile, WDFW staffers will also talk to the commission about what they’ve found while researching commercial fishing license buyback programs. If pursued, the next step would be to go to the legislature next year for funding.