Toward a solution on the Columbia River salmon harvest conflict: A follow-up

By Steve Packer of Newberg, Oregon. Steve is a political activist and sports fisherman. Steve's recent post introducing Blue Oregon readers to HB 2734 and SB 554 can be found here.

Testimony on HB 2734 was presented at the hearing of Tobias Read’s (D-Beaverton) Sustainability and Economic Development committee on March 26. Testimony was also heard on HB 2579 and HB 2781.

Several groups encouraged their membership to attend and it appeared there were more than 200 spectators. The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), a multistate grass roots advocacy group created to fulfill a need for effective representation of sports fishing, attended with monogrammed shirts and orange hats.

A coalition of various groups including sports fishing and industry groups also had about 100 members in attendance, all wearing the yellow SAFE for salmon (SfS) button.


And, about 45 of the commercial fishermen with an interest in the use of gill nets in the Columbia were also there with colorful Salmon for All (SFA) stickers.


The hearing room overflowed, the overflow room filled, the lobby had standing room only for the TV and the house office lobbies were full of interested people. The staffers told me this may be the largest hearings of the year. Some may wonder why salmon would cause so much interest but I suspect it is due to the salmon being both an icon of the Northwest and an indicator of the environmental health of our state.

The Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (ODFW) presented an overview with specifics of the programs to deal with the issues. They summarized that the key issues for them are compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the high demand for fish which fuels the intense debates.

The CCA testified in support of HB 2579. The bulk of their testimony was reviewing the science which recommends reform of hatchery practices. Their bill would introduce a variety of harvest methods to reduce mortality of wild fish and increase effectiveness of hatchery fish harvest. The bill requires the ODFW to set new commercial harvest regulations to lower ESA impact.

The SfS coalition spoke in support of HB 2734. This bill expands a program that has been in existence for more than 15 years which successfully uses the natural homing instinct of salmon to separate wild and hatchery fish. The testimony dealt with the science, the economic impact, and the environmental impact of proposal verses the status quo. The impact of sports fishing on Joe’s, a company in Chapter 11, was a compelling example of the effect of status quo.

SFA was represented by three people; a lobbyist, a fisherman, and a restaurateur. Their strategy was to refute the science and attack the three bills as a thinly-disguised grab by greedy sports fishermen. The restaurateur argued for gill-net caught fish for his restaurant as way to draw more tourists to Astoria. (I have to admit I am very picky about fish because I know how fresh and properly prepared fish taste. The restaurant in Astoria discussed here is a steak and pasta place and salmon is not on the menu.) Most of the time was spend refuting arguments for HB 2734 which I take as a good sign for SfS.

Testimony from the tribes was both interesting and predictable. They are clearly suspicious of any down-river changes that might affect their share of fish. Basically, they repeatedly threatened law suits if they suspected any reduction in their share. They also attacked the use of a fin clip to identify a hatchery fish. Selective fishing potentially changes the mix of ESA fish and hatchery fish that reach tribal fishing grounds and may impact the use of non-selective fishing by the tribes.

Senator Fred Girod (R – Stayton) spoke in support of HB 2781. This bill bans nets entirely. Sen. Girod is very likeable and clearly concerned about the fate of salmon. His testimony on the detrimental aspects of gill nets was very compelling. He did acknowledge that commercial fishing is very important and was willing to accept friendly amendments to his bill to ensure a healthy commercial fishing using selective harvest methods.

Rep. Scott Bruun (R – West Linn), the sponsor of HB 2734, spoke about his heritage of both sports and commercial fishing and stated we needed a 21st century solution to this very old problem.

Sen. Betsy Johnson (D - Scappoose) and Rep. Debbie Boone (D – Cannon Beach) read a letter from the 9 legislators from the coastal communities, This letter complained of a lack of collaboration by the parties involved and the piecemeal nature of the solutions. They requested the issue be postponed until February 2010 and a community solutions team be formed.

Sen. Johnson did not attend the presentations and showed up just before her testimony. It is very perplexing to me that a delaying tactic would be the preferable choice. The Governor relies on the fish and wildlife commission to work on these issues and they have repeatedly chosen the status quo. And, the reasoning is based on an interpretation of the “will of the legislature”. Hence, we have various groups going to the legislature for a policy change.

Now is the time for a decision. And, it is very satisfying to see our newest legislators working to understand the issues and being open and transparent in their decision making process. It seemed like a good day for HB 2734.

It was a secondary benefit to see so many people at the capital who had never met a legislator. Politics may be messy but it is much more satisfying when you can meet with people face-to-face and hear the reasoning yourself.

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    Steve, do any of these bills address the health or "salmon-friendly" (or not) of the coastal estuaries and bays where fry are vulnerable? Also, any word on the impact of the Caspain terns or thoughts of addressing their current overabundance at the mouth of the Columbia? I had heard their affect was thought to be extremely detrimental on both wild and hatchery stocks.

    Thanks for breaking down a complex issue as clearly as I've yet seen it.

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    The CCA Oregon testimony included an outstanding presentation on the science behind the need for safe, selective commercial harvest of salmon on the Columbia River. After a 50 year monopoly by the gillnets, we need a better gear to harvest these fish. Of course they are resisting this change, but improvement is long past due, and Oregon can certainly do better. Here is the video to help explain the urgent need for this change:

    Thanks for your interest, Ginny Ross

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    The use of gillnets on the mainstem Columbia is unconscionable given their mortality rates on ESA listed fish. The estimated mortality rates only measure immediate mortality, not delayed mortality caused by the onset of fungus in the wounds of fish that either escape the netting or are "released." Not to mention the impacts of ghost nets that keep killing after being lost..

    For the non-angling public, be assured there other, more selective ways to harvest chinook on the Columbia. Purse seines, hook and line, etc. The gillnetters know there are other ways, they just don't want to retool. There is some legitimate concern that there is not enough room in existing SAFE areas to accommodate the fleet. That issue will need to be addressed. I do have some concern regarding the impacts to wild fish in SAFE areas especially if additionally areas are made "SAFE."

    Regarding the terns, they are there as a result of the massive plants of hatchery chinook fry that are conditioned to swim near the surface from being raised in a hatchery, unaware of the possibility of death from above. If you want to get rid of the terns, there needs to be a massive reduction in the amount of the number of hatchery chinook planted in the Columbia. It is a simple predator-prey interaction. Basic biology.

    I seriously doubt the CCA, most sportfishers, the Indian Tribes or the gillnet fleet would be interested in that option though. Hey, I may have found the common ground Betty Johnson suggested looking for.

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    Jamais: The SfS proposal deals with the issue of harvest of hatchery salmon that increases economic benefit to Oregon and Washington. It does not attempt to solve all the problems with recovery of wild fish, an issue worthy of a discussion in itself. Terns are another protected species that adds complexity to the problem of salmon management and have demonstrated once again that humans have a hard time outsmarting Mother Nature.

    Terns found a suitable nesting area in islands created by the periodic dredging of the shipping channel. The artificial location encouraged predation on salmon rather than on more typical tern prey, like anchovies, that are found in abundance nearer to saltwater. The program to encourage nesting nearer to the sea has reduced the impact of tern predation on salmon. Supporting the biologist’s efforts to rectify a human caused problem remains the best choice with the tern issue.

    And, tern fishing in the mouth of the Columbia is such an entertaining and inspiring sight, they are welcome to a few ill-conditioned hatchery salmon if it means continued survival of the terns.

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    Onemule Team:

    Gill nets are an effective method of catching salmon and when used in the SAFE areas are able to remove 95% of the hatchery fish with little ESA impact. Gill nets have an important place in managing the harvest of hatchery fish and can be the most economical method of hatchery fish management.

    Purse seines can be very effective in slack water but in a free flowing river they would be ineffective. Hook and line has lower impact on released fish but simply cannot catch enough of the fish. Fish traps would work but would be effective only in tributaries where weirs could collect fish for sorting. Basically, we need the gill nets to collect as many of the hatchery fish as possible.

    There is a legitimate concern that the current SAFE areas are insufficient for removing gill nets from the main stem. The SfS proposal is a 5-year to demonstrate that the commercial industry is fully compensated and that no unintended consequences are created. And, some expansion of SAFE areas is possible as is some ESA impact from the expanded SAFE areas. The adjustment of the quotas would have to come as we gain knowledge of the new program.

    The arena of greatest conflict is spring Chinook. SAFE areas already supply >60% of these fish and moving the remainder to SAFE areas is very manageable. Fall Chinook and fall Coho are much bigger numbers and would present a greater challenge. But both Washington and Oregon are increasing the SAFE program to deal with hatchery fish straying into wild fish spawning grounds. SfS declares the SAFE program as legislative policy to improve economic benefit of the hatchery program.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    <img src="" width="240" height="179" alt="Seining Salmon on the Columbia River"/>


    Maybe I misspoke regarding purse seines; however, seining salmon seemed to work out alright for those fellow on the Columbia river. You are wrong that we need gillnets anywhere on the Columbia River. A more selective method would further reduce ESA impacts and is of particular importance if the number of SAFE areas are increased.

    The question of ESA impacts in SAFE areas is important and should not be summarily dismissed as you appear to do in your response. The scope of the impacts will be effected by what areas are designated as SAFE and what kind of gear is used.

    I'm not saying that I am anti-SAFE but while it is a good step I cannot agree that unselective gillnets are needed.

  • Peter Roscoe (unverified)

    Steve --

    I think you have underrepresented me. First of all, I am more than just a restaurant owner. I am also a City Councilor of Astoria, a member of the board of directors of the Oregon Restaurant Association and a member of the Oregon and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife joint task force setting all fishing seasons on the Columbia River. I said as much during my testimony and am surprised that you choose to overlook these involvements. I know it seems that I am just a single voice, but really, I represent a city of 10,000 people and an organization of thousands of restaurants in the state. By trying to single out my restaurant and implying that I do not even serve Spring Chinook you miss the point that friends and co chefs like Greg Higgins, Corey Schrieber, Phillippe Boulot, David Machado, Cathy Whims, Vitaly Paley and the rest of of sustainable food community have been advocating for years. I serve a Fish of the Day. I try to use as much fresh and local product as I can. That means that it is seasonal. When some gillnetters are allowed on the water and they actually catch some fish, I buy it from a fish processor and sell it to my customers. Without a fisherman to catch it, I can't sell it. So why would I try to put it on my menu all the time?

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    Onemule Team, The photo looks like a stereograph taken around the turn of the century. During that period, there were an estimated 16 million salmon returning to the river. I have photos of horses being used to pull the nets into the river which implies they caught fish in water only as deep as a horse’s belly! I don’t expect to ever see such abundances in my life.

    The problem in modern times is removing all the hatchery fish while constraining impact to the endangered wild fish. Selective harvest requires we separate the fish in some way while preventing strays. Use of seines and traps can’t solve both problems in the main stem of the river but could be effective if used along with imprinting fish to separate from the wild fish.

    For example, weirs and traps in tributaries would be very effective in removing hatchery fish with little ESA impact. However, gill nets in SAFE areas are just as effective and require no additional infrastructure and no additional capital investment. I can agree that gill nets are not required, I think they are a satisfactory solution with SAFE.

    And, seines look really promising for the tribes who fish in slack water. They could increase hatchery fish harvest without a change in their ESA impact quota if they so chose. The non-tribal fishery needs a solution for the free flowing water below Bonneville.

    Without SAFE, the hatchery program is vulnerable to law suits regarding hatchery strays and I worry that we will lose the hatchery program altogether if we do not maintain a healthy commercial fishery.

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    Peter, Thanks for the comment. This issue is before people who will vote on the merits of the bill but who have very little background in salmon or fishing issues. Blue Oregon is read by thousands of political activists who will have some influence on the outcome of the bills. But, clearly, this issue does not generate as many comments as, say, a neon sign in Portland.

    I do know of your commitment to the community and honor you for your work. I chose not to identify you, your affiliations, and your restaurant because this is an emotional issue and I prefer to avoid negative behavior, like we saw with another business owner in Astoria. We are all better off if fishing tourists spend freely in restaurants, hotels, tackle shops and charter services.

    Until I participated in this campaign, I refused to order, buy or eat any salmon that was not Oregon toll-caught. I almost never find any restaurant that knows the origin of the fish nor the method of harvest so I rarely order it. However, I have changed my mind about net-caught Columbia River salmon. I would buy, order, and eat salmon caught in the SAFE areas.

    I admit that I am picky about the preparation of salmon. When you know what it is like when given proper care, anything else is disappointing. I find the best experiences are in restaurants that specialize in fish so I rarely even try it in restaurants that offer fish as a alternate choice. Next time I’m in Astoria for dinner, I’ll try your fish of the day.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)


    No, the historic numbers are just that, historic. However, the fish densities in the SAFE area would likely rival those of historic times. . . . My point is only that other methods were effective in the past, we've just been doing what we've been doing so long we can't hardly remember there are other ways, better ways.

    You know that depending on where they select for expanded SAFE areas there could well be more intense ESA impacts to areas that can't afford them. How are lower CR chum doing? I'm not trying to argue as to whether SAFE is a good program or not or to try to find a fly in every ointment. The devil will be in the details.

    Fear not, as long as there are dams on the Columbia and its tribs there will be mitigation requirements. As long as those are there, there you will have your hatchery fish. Though let's face it, they are a big part of the problem.

    I fear the CCA will really put a push on for hatchery fish statewide because as of now there seems to be no acknowledgment on their part that hatchery fish are a big part of the problem.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    Upriver hatchery strays?

    I'm sure putting all the hatchery fish in the lower Big C will fly real well with the upriver guys. We feel like we are constantly getting scre**^%(&^ probably because we are.

    Better isolation programs like we have on the Mckenzie would be fine with me but you've probably heard the outrage from Lane County regarding smolt placement down there at "our" expense. Of course there are less of us so it'll probably go Portland's way. It's been like this forever.

    For recent examples, please see the way the upriver fisherman hammered last years springers below the falls even in the face of the tremendously low prediction. Then they shut the season down before a fish had even approached the area in which it originated. BTW, I saw one springer roll in the Mckenzie all summer. Or the front loaded fishery that leaves anglers in the eastern part of the state scratching their heads wondering why should Portland get all the fish.

    The fishery is plainly mismanaged. BTW, as of now far more fish have been harvested in the Willie than have passed the falls. and so it goes, again.

  • unbiased (unverified)

    Please allow me to encourage you to examine a potential vision of the future concerning this issue.

    ---No gillnetters means no wild harvesting of salmon on a consistent and large scale.

    ---No large scale harvesting of WILD (but hatchery) salmon means that the fish processing plants have to buy farmed fish. OR all those processors lose money and MORE people lose jobs.

    ---If fish are farmed in BC then BC gets all the money from those fish. If farmed in Washington then WA gets the income in their economy.

    ---Friends don't let friends eat farmed fish (which never get to the ocean so the farms DYE the meat red/pink)

    ---Salmon raised in pens contains 16 times the PCB's of a wild fish. PCB's are linked to cancer.

    ---Farms eventually breed disease which spreads to the entire salmonoid family.

    ---We are all out of salmon. ---Sea lions are fat, happy and overpopulating. ---Our children have cancer from farmed fish. ---Gilnetters all lost their jobs. ---There is no longer a harvest of true wild salmon.

    All in the name of sportfishing?

    We need to be smarter than this. We don't want to cause more problems when looking for a solution. Sea lions need to go before the gilnetters go.

    Please watch this VERY informative video of how the issue of salmon could VERY EASILY get a lot worse if we ban gilnetting.

  • unbiased (unverified)

    The SAFE areas will work----until something financially devastating happens to the hatchery process.

    My friend told me that he gives 5% of his earnings to salmon enhancement. But I have to admit I am benefitting from that when I go out on my skiff and catch a fish that he, essentially, paid for.

    Where will the funding for the SAFE areas come from? Is it completely safe from drying up? I can see why the gilnetters are nervous about being pushed out of the river. If the safe areas dry up they are totally out of a job.

    The biggest problem I can see---with as little experience as I have---is that there will be WAY too many boats in the small tributaries. Not enough room for them all.

    That problem is not being addressed. I have been watching them harvest youngs bay and they are already packed tightly in that bay. Blind slough looks pretty hectic too.

    ...I think more estuaries would need to be opened and stocked....

    But I agree that a sustainable wild harvest of salmon in the tributaries is an attractive (and even marketable) idea that could make Oregon and Washington very proud and ahead of their time (green)---if it really works.

    And I think the gilnetting fleet would be a lot more accepting of this decision if they were promised that the complete ban of gilnetting would finally be dropped.

    They don't have any security in their industry. I can't imagine coming to my job every day and wondering if the state was going to make it illegal?

    I also think that the price of Salmon would need to be monitored closely. The wild harvest of Chinook is in high demand and these guys make their money from it. if 40% comes from the main stem---like was said earlier in this thread---then they lose 40% of their money when they lose the river fishing. If the processors decide buy from farms, instead of netters, then the netters suffer by getting paid too little. In addition, if the netters are putting 5% toward enhancement, that 5% needs to be as high a number as possible to continue the hatchery processes.

    ---So in order to save proper pricing (by controlling supply) I think another good solution would be to make a state law in Oregon banning farms and the processing of fish from farms. This would assure the netters that the prices would remain high. Wild fish only. No farms.

    And most importantly Oregon's processors could market it's SAFE wild salmon fish to the world for a higher price. Everyone would KNOW it is true wild salmon from Oregon because it would be illegal in Oregon to process farmed fish. The gilnetters would be happy----know they are not ever going to be TOTALLY banned---prices could stay high--- taxes from the catch would remain high enough to support salmon enhancement. etc. A simple KEEP OREGON WILD label could mean it's NOT FARMED.

  • Poke A Haunt Ass Voter (unverified)

    Have as many children as you want, piss wherever you feel like, move the earth when it isn't convenient, and spend millions protecting what is left. What alternative is there?

    We can not break free from the paradigm with all the blood on our hands. The buffalo. Kill as many as you want, piss wherever you feel like, move anything that isn't convenient, and spend millions protecting what is left. Back to the orginal sin. The Native Americans. Kill as many as you want, piss wherever you feel like, move anyone that isn't convenient, spend millions protecting what is left.

    "Ecotourism" is no different than reservation casinos. You will allow some small remnant solace. As long as it pays it way by giving the dominant culture some yucks.

    Until we give up the competing behaviors because the environment matters to us more, this is only an expensive way to assuage our conscience. The fact is that it doens't matter to most more. That is more than the punishment for our original sin, it is our damnation as well.

  • Steve Packer (unverified)

    Onemule Team,

    The authors of HB 2734 agree that moving fall Chinook and fall Coho to the SAFE areas has risk. Hence, the proposal is agradual implementation over a 5 year period with evaluation of any detrimental and unintended consequences. And, it may be impractical to have so many fish return to the existing areas which would entail expansion and evaluation of ESA impact. But, even partial implementation of HB2734 is beneficial and provides additional information for fact-based decision making in the future. And the commercial fishermen would not have to move out of the main stem of the river until the fish are actually delivered to the SAFE areas.

    I do not believe we will return to the use of salmon hatcheries on our coastal rivers. The Columbia is the chosen river for our hatchery program and I do not believe that can be undone. However, the laws that demand mitigation are just laws which can be changed by the relentless pressure to be free of constraints imposed by salmon. There are very powerful lobbies that would be very happy if salmon just disappeared. Let’s not let that happen.

  • Steve Packer (unverified)

    Onemule Team, As you know, there are federal laws that mandate that half the fish destined to return above Bonneville are for tribal fisheries. And, the hatcheries need significant numbers to meet egg needs. HB2734 does not alter in any way the fish that are required to pass over Bonneville. It does deal with the portion of the hatchery run that would be intercepted by non-treaty fishing below Bonneville. So, everyone above Bonneville should see no changes and if nature intervenes in well laid plans, then SAFE for Salmon would have to be adjusted.

    HB2734 provides the commercial fishery all the fish they would have gotten without the law but minimizes ESA impact of the nets. This permits extended sports fishing season and a much more robust economic benefit for restaurants, hotels, bait shops, guides and charter. And, it permits the continued sale of fresh Columbia river salmon in supermarkets and restaurants.

    HB2734 should have no impact on fish returning the Willamette River. Your point about the conflict amongst sports fishermen for allocation in the lower Columbia, the Willamette and the tributaries of the Willamette are valid. Let’s prove we can work together on HB2734 and then address the allocation issue. I suspect a failure of HB2734 will be a loss of credibility in the legislature and years more of acrimonious conflict.

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    I do not buy or eat farmed salmon. And, I avoid restaurants that offer it and so should everyone who reads this blog. However, I can find almost no restaurants that offer Oregon wild-caught salmon and we should all demand that before we buy any salmon.

    HB 2734 is not about farm-raised salmon and deals instead with the issue of the harvest of hatchery fish that have grown to adults in the wild. These fish may be behaviorally inferior but they are not nutritionally inferior. Some hatchery fish are retained until they are yearlings and have experienced some hatchery food, but they are not the inferior and detrimental product you describe.

    The commercial fishermen are understandably skeptical of HB2734 but the authors have repeatedly offered to provide guarantees that would eliminate the doomsday prediction you suggest. However, the amendments if made would have to result in support of the bill by all parties. I suspect that good-faith negotiations cannot be done in the current environment of distrust.

    I believe it is critical to maintain a healthy commercial fishing in the Columbia. We need lots of salmon-eating people to look forward to and to buy fresh wild-caught salmon. Without that constituency, fewer people will care about salmon and other competing interests will prevail.

  • unbiased (unverified)

    I believe you misunderstood me. I in no way believe that hatchery fish are farmed fish. I am saying we NEED wild hatchery fish. And I am saying that if farmed fish were illegal in Oregon----to process or sell from Oregon---then we could assure the Oregon gillnet fleet that there will be no competition coming from the farmed fish in the future. This could be an attractive compromise.

    This in addition with a final statement from the state saying we will NEVER ban gillnetting entirely as long as gillnetting stays in the safe areas.

    And yes...NO ONE should eat farmed Salmon. Everyone should watch this video.

    Farmed fish are far worse than gillnetting in the long run.

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    Unbiased, I’m pretty sure that there is nearly universal agreement in the fishing community to avoid buying farmed salmon. And, I suspect there is similar support to rebuild our native wild runs but both topics deserve their own debate and remedial legislation. You should submit your own guest column on the topic.

    In some river systems, the wild fish are used as the brood stock for hatcheries. This helps reduce the impact of hatchery strays since they would be only one generation removed from wild fish. Unfortunately, the wild fish in the Columbia are so decimated that there are insufficient numbers to permit using females for the hatchery egg supply. For the foreseeable future, we have to separate the hatchery fish and remove as many as we can.

    HB2734 is a step in that direction and I hope you will support it with a call to your legislator, including your preference for guarantees for the commercial fishermen.

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