By Steve Packer of Newberg, Oregon. Steve is a political activist and sports fisherman.
HB 2734 (and SB 554) offers a bipartisan solution to the decades-long conflict over the harvest of hatchery salmon in the Columbia River. The bill is the creation of four biologists who have spent many years working on salmon-related issues. This group is unique because of their extensive experience and because they are empathetic with all sides of the conflict. They have proposed a solution that reduces the impact to endangered wild fish while maintaining the needed commercial harvest of hatchery salmon. In addition the proposal increases and stabilizes sports fishing seasons.
I am personally involved in this issue because I fish. I’ve fished for as long as I can remember and have witnessed a decline in fishing opportunity. Seasons have been shortened and occasionally eliminated. More importantly the seasons are unpredictable and one cannot plan a fishing vacation. The result has been a severe decline of fishing-related businesses and with the economic crisis these already weakened businesses may not survive. In fact we have already lost a few.
Salmon issues are confusing to most people because there are seven species and several key river systems, each with their own management issues. In addition some of the species have genetic variants that return to the rivers at different times of the year. This adds additional complexity for fish management in rivers like the Columbia.
Several species of hatchery fish were introduced into the Columbia River to mitigate the economic loss caused by dams to commercial salmon harvest. Extensive efforts to preserve the wild fish and not worked well and some populations of wild fish have declined to where they are now protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Recovery of these ESA fish is an important factor in any proposal for fish management. A problem arises with the harvest of hatchery fish that are comingled with ESA protected fish. Even with abundant hatchery fish, fishing opportunity is controlled by the impact on ESA fish which necessarily has to be very low.
Sports fishermen are restricted by timing, equipment and fishing practices to reduce the ESA impact. Sports fishermen are not particularly efficient and even with thousands of people trying, they could never catch all the available hatchery fish. Commercial fishing is more efficient but they have greater impact on ESA fish. When the allowable ESA impact of 2% has been reached, all fishing in the river must stop, even if there are hundreds of thousands of harvestable hatchery fish left in the river. The excess hatchery fish stray into spawning beds and potentially alter the genetic makeup of wild fish.
The miracle of salmon is their ability to imprint to their place of origin and to find their way back. Juveniles are imprinted at a specific time in their life and imprinting can be done almost anywhere. For the past 20 years, the department of fisheries has operated an experiment, called Select Area Fisheries Enhancement (SAFE), to imprint juveniles in the bays and estuaries of the lower Columbia. These fish are harvested by nets that capture 95% of all the returning hatchery fish with almost no impact to ESA fish.
A better solution for harvest of hatchery fish
HB 2734 would move more hatchery fish to the SAFE areas and restrict netting to these areas. The approximately 80 Oregon commercial fishermen in the Columbia would get as many or more fish as permitted today but with little or no impact to wild fish. The continued use of nets is needed to minimize the numbers of straying fish. The economic impact of the change proposed by HB 2734 to the commercial industry and our ability to buy salmon in a restaurant or a supermarket is neutral or positive.
With the ESA impact from nets minimized, the sports fishing seasons can be longer and more stable. The communities on the coast and river benefit from the enhanced fishing seasons with significantly greater sales to sports fishermen. The economic impact of a sports caught fish to these communities is at nearly 5x greater than of a commercially caught fish.
After years of angry confrontation, the parties in the dispute are unable to resolve the issue. The legislature is unable to spend the time to resolve such complex technical issue and the result has been to maintain the status quo. Basically there is no trust between the various groups and a cooperative solution is unlikely. To further complicate the resolution, native fish advocates and the tribes have concerns that add to the inertia which results in favoring the status quo.
Unfortunately, maintaining the status quo has resulted in a declining sports fishing industry and the loss of jobs throughout the state is frightening. This economic impact is entirely unnecessary and we have a solution with HB 2734.