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Columbia River Salmon Conservation

Salmon and steelhead get much-needed protection on Columbia River in Pacific Northwest.

March 29, 2013
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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:

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  1. Promoting conservation and ­recovery of wild salmon and ­steelhead, maintaining orderly ­fisheries, and increasingly focusing harvest on abundant hatchery fish.
  2. Seeking to enhance the overall economic well-being and stability of Columbia River fisheries.
  3. Phasing out the use of gill nets by nontribal fishers in the main stem by 2017.
  4. Prioritizing recreational fisheries for salmon and steelhead in the main-stem lower Columbia River and commercial fisheries in off-channel areas.
  5. Developing and implementing selective fishing gear and techniques for commercial fisheries in the main stem.
  6. 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.

The desire is to have consistent and concurrent policies by both states. While there are some differences in how each state is approaching its plans, it is expected that those will be resolved by the respective fisheries directors, and then finalized by the two state ­commissions. The general concept of this plan is to move the commercial-fishing effort into areas that have a high concentration of hatchery fish, and in doing so, allow more of the wild fish to access the upriver spawning grounds.

The initial phase of the plan is the Transition Period 2013 to 2016. It is during this time that new types of alternative fishing gears will be developed, implemented and monitored. Development and implementation of these innovations will come from the commercial industry, incentivized by public funding. A gill-net license buyback will also be initiated during this time, which should lower the commercial effort. There will also be an effort to expand the hatchery programs for some of the off-channel areas, which will benefit both ­recreational and commercial users.

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During the transition period, there will be a target-percentage allocation of each species by location on the river. As the program moves from ­transition phase to long-term phase, these percentage allocations increase for the recreational-user groups. If the program is successful at rebuilding the wild stocks, and the hatchery program maintains or enhances its funding and subsequent ­production, this plan will be very beneficial to the ­recreational-fishing industry. While the main thrust of this effort is directed at salmon and steelhead, the same kind of program could work for sturgeon, and that option will be explored in 2013.

It is possible that managers will require that logbooks be kept and ­submitted by licensed fishing guides and charters. They also might look at voluntary trip reports by private anglers. This will impose a new requirement on some in the recreational industry, but if implemented properly, it will provide a valuable source of information on catch-and-harvest data.

This program is the culmination of many years of work, and is a great ­example of how industry and government can work together to produce benefits for all users of public resources. Replicating this effort around the coastline would be a real boost to both the resources and the recreational users.

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