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NW Fishletter #388, Dec. 3, 2018

[6] Washington, Oregon Eye 'Concurrent' Columbia River Fishing Policy

A five-year review of Washington state's policy for managing recreational and commercial fishing in the Columbia River found that while some of its goals are being met, the policy is falling short of several expectations, including finding new ways to reduce numbers of hatchery fish that escape to spawn with wild fish, and efforts to develop and implement alternative fishing gear to replace gillnets.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's extensive review of the policy was a large part of the discussions at a joint meeting between the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions on Nov. 1.

Concurrency--or how well Washington's fishing regulations match with Oregon's--was part of that review, and also a topic of discussion at the joint meeting, where staff and commissioners from both states expressed a desire to reduce or eliminate differences between their policies for fishing in the Columbia River. A Columbia River Compact between the two states ensures joint management of fishing, but also allows each state to have different rules and regulations on its side of the river.

Ryan Lothrop, Washington's Columbia River fishery manger, told commissioners that while many of the regulations for allocations between commercial and recreational fishing are either identical or similar in both states, there are several situations where they are not the same. This creates challenges when it comes to enforcing fishing regulations and ensuring that not too many hatchery fish go unharvested.

Tucker Jones, Oregon's program manager for ocean salmon and the Columbia River, gave commissioners a breakdown of all the areas where regulations are not concurrent for spring, summer and fall Chinook, and coho.

"Concurrency promotes orderly, enforceable fisheries. It increases the likelihood of allocations being achieved, but it's not required and each state can do what they need to," he told commissioners. "That being said, not having concurrent regulations is a real tough situation from a management standpoint. It's going to impact pretty substantially both recreational and commercial fisheries," especially boat fishing, where operators must determine whether they're in waters managed by Washington or Oregon.

Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher emphasized the value of concurrent regulations in his opening remarks at the joint meeting. "We view this, really, as an opportunity to reinitiate some relationship-building between the two commissions," which hadn't held a joint meeting in "at least three or four years," he said. During discussions, some commissioners indicated they'd like to see changes to align the two policies by the 2019 fishing season.

After the meeting, Lothrop told NW Fishletter that while no decisions were made to develop concurrent fishing regulations in the Columbia River, both states are planning to continue discussions. Meanwhile, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved its staff's comprehensive review of Washington's current policy, which will be finalized and published by December.

Based on the review and public input, the 10-year policy--which was adopted in 2013 and amended in 2017--could stay the same, be revised or completely replaced, Lothrop said. When adopted, it was designed to promote orderly fisheries, help conserve wild salmon and steelhead, and offer economic stability to the state's fishing industry. Compared with previous regulations, the new policy gave recreational fishermen a larger allocation and promoted the use of alternative gear for commercial fishing while phasing out gillnets.

In interviews with NW Fishletter, Lothrop and Bill Tweit, special assistant at Washington's Columbia River Policy Office, both said that the main conservation goal of the policy is to reduce the proportion of hatchery fish on spawning grounds, or pHOS, which the new policy has failed to do so far. It's the main conservation goal because other measures--such as meeting escapement of wild fish as required under the Endangered Species Act--are already being met outside of the policy.

Lothrop said reducing numbers of hatchery fish that escape to spawn with wild fish is dependent on increasing marked fisheries, and that has not happened. He said while pHOS decreased during the five years, the bulk of that reduction was due to the use of weirs that are set up in tributaries to physically remove hatchery fish and allow wild fish to continue upstream.

When commissioners asked about continuing efforts to ensure hatchery fish are not mixing with wild fish, Tweit explained, "Staff are very aware if we're going to achieve our goals on pHOS, we can't rely just on weirs. Over the five years, the weirs worked well, but we know they aren't going to work well every year, in all situations, in every river." He said a multi-tool approach will be essential over time for continuously removing the large numbers of returning hatchery fish and preventing strays from getting to spawning areas.

While allocating a higher percentage of fish to recreational fishing, the policy also included several changes for commercial fishermen. Those included exploring new select fishing areas, developing certification for sustainably managed fishing, offering a commercial license buy-back program, and developing and implementing alternative fishing gear to replace commercial gillnet fishing.

Lothrop told commissioners that most of those efforts were unsuccessful. New select areas were explored, but only one potential new site in Washington was attempted at Cathlamet Channel, which was not successful due to poor smolt survival. Certification for sustainable fishing has not yet been attempted due to costs, and a commercial license buy-back program was initiated and abandoned, although new efforts are now underway.

Lothrop said the use of gillnets for spring and summer Chinook were phased out in Washington waters in 2017, but not for fall Chinook.

He said they've successfully tested some new alternative fishing gear in the lower Columbia River, but have not yet found suitable replacements for gillnet fishing. He said tests showed some of the alternative gear resulted in higher mortality rates for Chinook and coho than anticipated, or significant handling of steelhead, which made it challenging to implement due to the potential impacts to Endangered Species Act-listed fish. In some cases, fishermen would need a larger crew or substantial investments, which may have hindered some from participating.

According to a draft summary of the policy review, substantial resources were invested to develop and test alternative methods of commercial fishing. "Some commercial licensees have made notable investments to use alternate gears; to date, there has been no return from those investments."

But, Lothrop said, it takes a full season to test one new method, so finding suitable alternative gear may take time. He said the agency and fishermen are continuing their efforts based on what has been learned so far. "It's a slow, methodical process of learning," he said.

Several other aspects of the policy were evaluated in the review, and members of the public offered many different perspectives on how to change--or recommendations not to change--the fishing policy, all of which will be considered before any policy decisions are made. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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