As this is being written, the ground in the Northeast is white and frozen, but the days are getting imperceptibly longer, minute by minute. In the Pacific Northwest, recreational anglers and endangered Columbia River salmon and steelhead stocks got a nice Christmas present. The results of this should lead to many happy new years to come.
For a number of years, there have been discussions about how to restore and then maintain healthy populations of the once-abundant Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead stocks. Mitigation funding from the construction of hydroelectric dams on the river formed the basis for running substantial hatchery operations in the lower river to produce salmon for both recreational and commercial uses. But this did nothing for the dwindling wild stocks, which had impaired access to and egress from productive spawning grounds, and which were caught along with the hatchery-raised fish.
Early in December 2012, Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to ban gill nets from the main stem of the Columbia River based on the recommendations of a joint Oregon-Washington fisheries working group and spurred on by Oregon’s Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wants a workable solution in place by the end of 2013. At its Dec. 14 to 15 meeting, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission also voted on its draft policy that includes the following key provisions:
- Promoting conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead, maintaining orderly fisheries, and increasingly focusing harvest on abundant hatchery fish.
- Seeking to enhance the overall economic well-being and stability of Columbia River fisheries.
- Phasing out the use of gill nets by nontribal fishers in the main stem by 2017.
- Prioritizing recreational fisheries for salmon and steelhead in the main-stem lower Columbia River and commercial fisheries in off-channel areas.
- Developing and implementing selective fishing gear and techniques for commercial fisheries in the main stem.
- Requiring recreational anglers fishing for salmon or steelhead in the main stem to use barbless hooks beginning in 2013.
A number of events, organizations and individuals have pushed this outcome toward the goal line. The listing of Columbia River salmonids under the Endangered Species Act has been a strong legal motivator to get Washington and Oregon to work together for a sustainable solution. Jim Martin — conservation director for Pure Fishing and the former fish chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — has waged a long battle to get a workable plan in place that would allow the continued catch of hatchery-raised fish and, at the same time, allow a greater number of wild fish the opportunity to get upriver to spawn. The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and the Coastal Conservation Association have strongly supported this initiative.