White Sturgeon

A giant white sturgeon illegally caught in Scappoose Bay, Ore.

In 2014, Oregon State Police troopers arrested an Astoria man after finding a boat using an illegal net near the Willamette River and seizing more than 700 pounds of illegally caught Chinook salmon.

In 2017, the troopers arrested two people after finding a boat with an illegal net in the Deschutes River cold water sanctuary. The net contained 85 Chinook salmon valued at $3,500.

In 2021, poachers took spawning steelhead from an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish trap multiple times, and after installing a surveillance camera, troopers arrested one person and sought the public's help in identifying others.

The cases of illegal salmon fishing in the Columbia Basin appear to be few and far between. But Yvonne Shaw, Stop Poaching Campaign coordinator for ODFW, said the number of illegal fishing cases is not representative of the issue. "Poaching is a big problem," she told NW Fishletter. "One of the challenges is, we only catch a fraction of the people who are poaching. It's really tricky," she added.

That's one reason that the Oregon Legislature approved a $4.2 million budget in 2019 for the agency's anti-poaching campaign, and this year, hired a new assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice to help locate, investigate and prosecute poachers.

Prosecuting illegal fishing and hunting crimes is the third piece of Oregon's anti-poaching strategy, along with increased detection through a public awareness campaign and increased enforcement by hiring additional fish and wildlife troopers.

Shaw noted that rewards for reporting poachers were recently increased, and Washington is also boosting its efforts to prevent illegal salmon fishing.

The WashingtonLegislature earlier this year appropriated more than $11 million in new funds for monitoring and enforcing fishing regulations across the state as part of Gov. Jay Inslee's salmon recovery strategy. While the Legislature failed to pass a bill to restore riparian habitat considered vital to salmon recovery, it did approve Inslee's funding requests to address salmon harvest, monitoring and enforcement issues.

In an email responding to questions from NW Fishletter, policy analysts at the Washington Office of Financial Management said the enforcement and harvest monitoring measures in Inslee's request were designed to help salmon that are threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, as well as unlisted hatchery fish.

With the new funding the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is expecting to hire six new fish and wildlife officers in 2023 and six or seven more in the next biennium. Several more biologists and scientific technicians will be hired to monitor the commercial and recreational salmon harvests in both freshwater and marine waters, mostly in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, and coastal rivers.

The analysts said there were several factors driving the governor's request for additional harvest monitoring and enforcement.

"Illegal fishing is always a consideration," Ralph Thomas, OFM's communications director, said in an email. "But the main driver for the funding is a desire for more timely and better data for managing fisheries to comply with the Endangered Species Act."

The analysts noted that anglers usually report their harvest at the end of the season, which does not allow in-season adjustments of fishing seasons. Additional monitoring will allow the agency to close or extend fishing seasons to ensure protection of listed species.

"It is important to understand that commercial and recreational fishers can be legally harvesting fish during the designated season but as a whole they may exceed their allocation. Additional harvest monitoring helps to prevent this from happening."

He said no new funds were designated to monitor Columbia River's recreational and commercial harvest because it is already well monitored by both Washington and Oregon. However, salmon migrating to the Columbia River do travel through coastal waters of the state, although generally do not enter Puget Sound. "Additional monitoring of harvest would help co-managers have a better understanding of the impacts of ocean fisheries and help to ensure harvest quotas are not exceeded," the OFM noted.

While wildlife enforcement officers don't always catch the poachers, an ODFW official said he thinks there are too many people watching for illegal fishing for it to have a big impact on threatened or endangered salmon runs.

Last month, ODFW closed steelhead fishing in a section of Willamina Creek in the Columbia Basin northwest of Salem due to concerns that some anglers were illegally catching steelhead while claiming to be fishing for trout. Oregon State Police became aware of "a significant number of incidents of poachers targeting steelhead," a WDFW news release stated. The agency closed all fishing in order to protect migrating winter steelhead.

"Harvest is pretty intensively managed and monitored," Tucker Jones, manager of the ODFW Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program, told NW Fishletter. Unlike sturgeon—which are targeted by poachers due to the high prices offered for sturgeon eggs—"I don't know that there's a big, illicit black market for salmon and steelhead," he said.

Jones also noted, "I think there are enough interested and competing parties in the legal fisheries that if there were people stepping out of line, other folks would really be looking for that as well."

However, a worldwide analysis of fisheries crimes published in March in the journal Science found that offenses related to fisheries have increased over the past two decades, prompting multinational efforts to crack down on illegal fishing, as well as piracy and drug trafficking.

"Illegal fishing is ubiquitous across the world," the analysis notes. "Motivated by high demand for seafood, profit-seeking, and fewer fishes, illegal fishing accounts for nearly 11 to 26 million [metric tons] representing a quarter of the US $120 billion global landed value of fisheries," the study states.

A map of fisheries-related crime hot spots from 2000 to 2020 shows 135 offenses off the coast of British Columbia; however, no data from the U.S. Pacific Coast was included due to time constraints, the authors said.

Mark Saunders, director of International Year of the Salmon for the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, identified illegal or unreported fishing as one of the important but rarely-talked-about threats to salmon during the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's ocean forum.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.