PORTLAND — The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted late last week to ban the use of gillnets to catch fish on the main stem of the Columbia River, relegating the primary commercial-fishing tool to side channels and tributaries.
Washington's fish commission was scheduled to decide soon on similar rules, eliminating the centuries-old practice from both sides of the river.
The gillnet ban was pushed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who hopes to mediate a longstanding conflict between commercial and recreational fishers while transitioning to new methods of commercial fishing. Recreational fishers say gillnets are harmful to the recovery of endangered salmon.
The proposal has infuriated commercial fishers, who say it'll be impossible for them to earn a living by fishing only in the limited areas where they'll be allowed to use gillnets.
They say the proposed new fishing gear won't work and see the move as a ploy by recreational fishers to eliminate competition for strictly limited fish harvests.
"Main-stem fishing should not be taken away because greedy people want more," Matthew Evans, a gillnetter from Astoria, told the commission. "There's a lot of people out of work, and I don't want to be one of them."
First used by Native American fishers long before the Lewis and Clark expedition charted the Pacific Northwest, gillnets are still the primary method of commercial fishing on the Columbia. They snag fish by the gills, preventing them from breaking free.
Critics say the nets are cruel to fish and kill thousands of endangered salmon.
"Protecting and enhancing our wild steelhead and salmon benefits commercial fishers, recreational anglers, the public at large, and, most importantly, the fish," said Dave Schamp, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association's operations in Oregon.
Kitzhaber's proposal was advanced after Schamp's organization gathered signatures to ban gillnets altogether on the Oregon side of the river.
Kitzhaber said he was committed to improving economic benefits for commercial and recreational fishers alike. He viewed the ban as part of a larger strategy that includes increasing the availability of hatchery salmon returning to side channels and legalizing alternative gear for commercial fishing.
In a letter to the commission Friday, Kitzhaber acknowledged that a lot must go right for his plan to work and asked the commission to consider backing off if shared economic benefits don't materialize.
Washington is studying alternative fishing gear to see whether it is safer for endangered fish. The most-touted method is a purse seine, which encircles fish in the river then is pulled shut at the bottom to trap them. With fish still in the water, fishers can sort out endangered fish and set them free.
Gillnetters say seines require larger boats and may not be profitable on the Columbia or will concentrate the catch in the hands of a few fishers with extensive experience and money to buy new equipment.
Seines are illegal in Oregon, but the Legislature is expected to consider legalizing them next year.
"As a sport fisherman, I appreciate the increased opportunity to catch more fish, and as a conservationist, I thank you for giving the fish a better shot at survival for the next generations," Wallace Beck of McMinnville, Ore., told commissioners. "These fish belong to no one, and at the same time they belong to all of us."
About 200 gillnetters are active on the Columbia, many of them from families that have been commercially fishing for generations.
Kitzhaber has requested money to increase hatchery fish in areas where gillnetters would be allowed to operate, and to help them weather the economic consequences.
But gilnetters remained unconvinced, saying there's not enough money to make it work.
"We're not fighting for a job or a livelihood," said Joe Parker, a third-generation gillnetter from Astoria. "We're fighting for a way of life."
Fish recovery plans allocate a certain number of endangered fish that can be impacted by fish harvests. Such limits are divided between tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries.
The rules would steadily decrease limits allocated for commercial fisheries and increase the allocations for recreational fisheries. They also would require recreational fishers to use unbarbed hooks.
Tribal fisheries are not affected by the proposed new rules.
Commercial fishers say they're catching fish for consumers, so the commission's action will limit the public's access to valued fish originating upriver.
The commission also voted to prohibit the retention of white sturgeon beginning in 2014 because of declining populations — a move the several sport-fishing guides said would harm their income. Sport fishers will be allowed to retain one white sturgeon next year.