Measure 81: Fact and fiction about indiscriminate gillnets

Measure 81: Fact and fiction about indiscriminate gillnets

Gillnets don't only catch fish but all manner of wildlife including birds

By Steve Pedery of Portland. Steve is the Conservation Director for Oregon Wild.

Over the course of a ballot measure fight, one expects that supporters and opponents would have different opinions about the impacts of a particular measure. That’s the nature of political campaigns.

But in the case of opponents to Ballot Measure 81, which would ban the use of indiscriminate gill nets on the Columbia River while allowing for more selective, sustainable commercial fishing gear, what we’re finding is that the gillnet proponents feel entitled not only to their opinions, but also to their own set of facts. One recent pro-gillnet opinion column in the Oregonian contained more misinformation than fact.

Here are the facts.

Ballot Measure 81 would prohibit the use of indiscriminate gill nets for commercial fishing on the Columbia River in Oregon, while encouraging fisherman to adopt more selective, sustainable techniques.

Gill nets are typically nets made of nylon plastic mesh, strung across the river in areas salmon and other commercially valuable species are known to travel. These net "curtains" are suspended by a system of floats and weighted at the bottom. The holes in the net are large enough to allow fish to get their heads in, but when they try to back out, the netting snags on their gills. Because many different species of fish swim in the Columbia, the indiscriminate nature of gill nets means they capture not only hatchery salmon, but also endangered wild salmon and steelhead, sturgeon and other fish.

Gill nets don't just kill fish. They can also entangle diving birds, otters, beavers and other wildlife, causing them to drown, often after prolonged suffering. Gill nets are so effective at capturing nearly anything that swims that they have been dubbed "curtains of death." Oregon banned the use of gillnets along our coast over 45 years ago precisely because of their indiscriminate nature.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and gill net proponents are politically well-connected. Every previous effort by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and our Legislature to reform the use of gill nets in the Columbia River has been blocked. Time and time again, gill-net promoters have killed compromise proposals to relocate the nets to reduce harm to fish and wildlife, as well as measures that would encourage the adoption of more responsible fishing techniques.

Now, faced with a ballot initiative before Oregon voters, they are lashing out on the pages of the Oregonian and elsewhere. Their arguments just don’t hold water.

Gillnet Fiction:
This measure won’t save a single fish.

Gillnet Fact:
Gill nets are indiscriminate. Any fish that swims into them that is larger than the size of the mesh becomes trapped, regardless of whether they are a salmon from a fish hatchery or a wild steelhead or Chinook from a critically endangered run. Because of the damage they inflict to the gills, a large percentage of the fish trapped by gill nets will die even if they are freed and released. Measure 81 is also about more than just fish. Gillnets are indiscriminate, and all manner of wildlife, from diving birds to beavers, can be trapped and killed in them.

Ballot measure 81 requires that commercial fishers on the Columbia River transition from indiscriminate gillnets to more sustainable and selective fishing methods, such as purse seine nets, that allow wild salmon and steelhead to be released unharmed back into the river. State agencies from both Oregon and Washington have been testing more sustainable, selective fishing techniques in the Columbia River since 2009.

WDFW has said that:

"identifying commercial fishing gear capable of catching large numbers of hatchery fish while protecting wild fish would not only support conservation efforts, but also provide additional financial benefits for commercial fishers and the state of Washington."

ODFW has said:

"Development of viable fishing gear that can selectively remove hatchery fish would not only benefit commercial fisheries, but may also contribute to the recovery of wild salmon..."

The fact is that Measure 81 will save wild salmon and steelhead, as well as countless other species, from white sturgeon to river otters. And by encouraging the commercial fishing industry to adopt more sustainable practices, it will ensure that Oregonians for generations to come can continue to enjoy Columbia River salmon.

Gillnet Fiction:
This is not a conservation issue, it is about fish allocation. This is really about the recreational fisherman wanting to get all the fish.

Gillnet Fact:
Not a single world in Measure 81 provides more fish to recreational fishers. This measure is about protecting wild and endangered fish, and Oregon’s wildlife.

Around the world, policy makers and regulators are increasingly restricting gillnet use and encouraging commercial fishermen to use more sustainable practices. From New Zealand to Mexico, North Carolina to Hawaii, concern over the harm gillnets cause to wildlife has lead to restrictions on their use.

Oregon Wild (for whom I work) and the Humane Society of the United States are strong supporters of Measure 81 specifically because it will end the needless death of endangered salmon and steelhead as well as seabirds, beavers and other wildlife that die in gillnets. We are not a fishing group, nor are we particularly concerned with how harvest allocations for hatchery salmon are split.

There are numerous other examples of false claims made by gill net proponents regarding Measure 81, but you get the point. On any ballot initiative, there will always be strong differences of opinion, and heated rhetoric. But Oregon voters deserve a reality-based debate over the use of indiscriminate gillnets in the Columbia River. The reality is that if our state is to maintain a vibrant, sustainable commercial fishing industry in the Columbia for decades to come, we must reform this antiquated, indiscriminate fishing practice today.

You can head on over to the Yes on 81 campaign web site to find out more about why you should support this measure.


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    Nice work, Steve. The gillnet lobby is pretty used to getting their way in the legislature and with state agencies. So far, they've been able to spread these lies without any accountability from the media.

    Full disclosure: I am the Communications Director for the Stop Gillnets Now campaign.

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    I would really like to hear the rationale for re-legalizing seine nets, which are also (as I understand) rather indiscriminate and were outlawed in Oregon decades ago. Why is that part of this measure?

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    Purse seines are very effective at catching fish. The difference is that, because they don't suffocate fish by their gills (as gillnets do), fishers have the ability to sort hatchery from wild fish while still alive. Hatchery fish (marked by a clipped fin) can be kept for harvest, wild fish gently tossed back into the river to spawn.

    Take a look at this video (Wild Release) of the Colville Tribes' using purse seines for selective harvest & you'll get a much better sense of why they're superior to gillnets from a conservation standpoint:

    The goal of Measure 81 is to allow commercial fishing while protecting the 13 species of salmon & steelhead on the Columbia that are either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

    Governments around the world are banning or restricting gillnet use because of their impact on endangered species. We no longer allow gillnets in our coastal waters or any other river in Oregon. If you care about protecting native salmon on the Columbia, it makes sense to stop using gillnets there.

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      Thanks, Eric. That is by far the clearest (and perhaps only) explanation I've heard for that. If this difference exists between the two types of nets, why did Oregon ban purse seines previously and not gillnets?

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        That's an interesting question. Awhile back I managed to find the 1948 voters pamphlet and the statement in support of the measure (which prohibited traps, seines and fixed appliances (what's a fixed appliance?)) was full of passionate, progressive rhetoric, including this:

        "Why should a fraction of one percent of the state's citizenry by law be granted an exclusive monopoly to a trap, seine or fixed appliance site when no other commercial fisheries are granted such monopoly in any way whatsoever?"

        So it seems there was a progressive backlash against a monopoly on licenses for traps and seines were issued. That's my best guess.

        I do know that Measure 81 requires gillnets to be replaced by gear that can selectively sort wild from hatchery fish. We didn't think or know to do that back in 1948.

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    Gary Pedery wants to instruct Blue Oregon readers on the gillnet fiction vs. gillnet fact but his Aug. 8 commentary makes clear that he’s just not that knowledgeable about Measure 81 or Columbia River gillnets, much less the difference between fact and fiction. Pedery’s core claim is that gillnets are “Curtains of Death” and the “indiscriminate nature of gill nets” that trap birds, otters, beavers and other wildlife and cause “prolonged suffering” on Columbia River. His claims are simply false, according to evidence from state and federal fish-and-wildlife regulatory agencies. Birds simply aren’t an issue in the Columbia River fishery, based on decades of observational data. Birds and gillnets may interact, but not generally in the Columbia basin. Washington and Oregon fish-and-wildlife agencies and the National Marine Fisheries reported in December 1993 that on the Columbia River fishery there is “a rare incidence of any seabird entanglement during the winter season” season” and that “marbled murrelet (seabirds) have not been seen in the fishery”. It reported again in 2008 that the “fisheries described in this report are not likely to adversely affect this species.” ODFW personnel use gillnets to tag sturgeon but department personnel encountered only one bird in 1,303 net sets – 0.0008 birds per net set – during the late spring/early summer from 2000 to 2012. Commercial gillnet fishing in the Columbia could not go on if the nets threatened these birds. It’s allowed because the overall rate of avian encounters is very low. As for mammals, the National Marine Fisheries Service categorizes the Columbia River commercial gillnet fishery as "Remote likelihood of/no known interactions” – it’s best category for interactions that result in incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals. ” ( Now let’s focus on Pedery frets about fish. The fact is that neither commercial gillnet fishermen nor sport-fishermen would be allowed to fish the Columbia River if they posed a risk to fish. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service 2011 Report to Congress (, the only West Coast salmon considered overfished are two stocks in California, and Washington Coast Western Strait of Juan de Fuca Coho. That's it. No Columbia River stocks are listed at all as subject to overfishing, being overfished or approaching being overfished. Agency websites such as NMFS’ Fishwatch ( and the Monterey Bay Aquarium ( ) both show that gillnet-caught wild salmon in Alaska, Washington and Oregon are sustainable.

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    I know this is a favorite gillnet lobby tactic to toss a ton of words out there, drag folks through the weeds & hope that something sticks.

    Birds trapped in gillnets not a problem on the Columbia? As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. [image from the Columbia earlier this year]

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    Here's my 1000 words! Fred Girods Salmon plan and in case everyone doesn't understand he is one of the 3 sponsers of this measure, just wondering how you could even bring a bird into the arguement when he is promoting an open season on them. As far as beavers I've asked around and no one can recall ever catching a beaver down here, but for 45 bucks ODFW will issue you a permit and you can go trap your own.

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    Ok, BlueOregon readers, I hope you are sitting down before you read this.....

    I think this is a good idear. Why? For a reason not cited in the article: tourism.

    As more fish populate our rivers and streams, fishing will become an even more popular pasttime in Oregon (if that is possible). People already love Oregon for its fishing, they will love it more when there is a higher chance of actually catching something!

    My point is this: more fish in the water means more people fishing which means more people traveling to Oregon to fish which means more people spending money in Oregon which means more tourism dollars which means more jobs in Oregon. Yes, I actually think this measure will help our economy in the long run.

    One last thing in response to Bruce's post about how only people who fish will be able to enjoy salmon.

    I will quote the modern philosopher Ron Swanson:

    "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Don't teach a man to fish, fishing is not that hard, make him learn it his own damn self."

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    Well it's offical both sides are right, the measure might save a few birds for Freds new hunt and there's really no saved Wild Fish just one group kills less so another can kill more.

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    The issue of salmon fishing in the Columbia River is a complex and interesting topic. I have been involved in the issue long enough to believe the legislative process is the proper course, even though we have had many years of inaction. There are many stakeholders, some of whom are silent but all of whom are very interested in any changes. It should not be a surprise that stopping all fishing is the goal of some of these groups. Nevertheless, I believe all stakeholders should have opportunity to review, comment and offer public testimony, even if we keep doing it over and over. And, the sluggish pace of this issue is due in part to the many really tough issues we face in the state, most of which are higher priority.

    Salmon are a common resource, owned by everyone. Some of us want to catch them ourselves, others want them available in the super markets and restaurants, and still others want them left alone. I believe all groups have legitimate claims to fish and their claims should be respected. The commercial fishermen do us a great service and they should be honored and not vilified.

    There are about 200 gill net licenses in Oregon. Some of these licenses are owned by very elderly people and some of the licenses are not fished. Given the quotas for commercial harvest, there are more than enough participants to catch their quota. This group has one or two lobbyists who seem to do a pretty good job of defending the status quo.

    In contrast, there are 600,000 sports fishing licenses in Oregon and many lobbyists for a variety of groups. The eventual outcome seems obvious.

    I believe the time for gill nets in the main stem of the Columbia has passed. And, we need a transition plan to help the commercial fishermen refit and to establish better fishing practices. This would be a multiyear plan and one that will take some money. The money part is a huge sticking point for some in the legislature.

    And, we need some additional research on harvest methods. A seine in the main flow of the Columbia seems scary but then I would never want to manage a drift net in the current either. And, idea of a floating fish wheel seems promising. It just does not seem right to make such demands without paying for it.

    I will vote for the ballot initiative. But, I really do not like using the ballot initiative for this kind of issue.

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    I believe the change in harvest practices can be made without making up arguments. Impact of gillnets on mammals and birds is a red herring and the two photos are suspicious. The photo with the article appears to be of a species that is neither a diving bird nor indigenous to the NW. The other is of a carcass. Gill nets are well managed but under no circumstances would a net be left unattended long enough for a bird to rot.

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      Mr. Packer,

      Gill nets are lost to snags regularly in the Columbia, and because they are constructed of nylon mono filament it takes decades for them to decay. These "ghost nets" can capture and kill birds and aquatic mammals, as well as fish, for many, many years. The decomposing bodies of animals shown in photos are from such ghost nets.

      Oregon currently does not have adequate rules in place to require gill net operators to labeled them with their identification, and cannot thus impose penalties for owners who do not recover or report lost nets.

      Measure 81 would change that, and require not only more sustainable seine nets that reduce by-catch, but also require them to be tagged and labeled with their owners ID, and for lost nets to reported within a minimum period of time. That would be a giant step forward in reducing by-catch of birds and aquatic mammals, and reducing the problem of ghost nets.

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        Steve, If you must keep coming back to the so-called by-catch issue sooner or later you'll have to deal with sports fishing impacts on birds and mammals. For instance: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that discarded monofilament fishing line is the number one killer of adult brown pelicans, although one Audubon biologist says that "[p]retty much every type of water or shore bird can get caught up in fishing line …. We find dead cormorants, anhingas, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills … you name it."

        One out of every five manatee rescues conducted in the 1980s and 1990s was related to fishing-line entanglement, and during a four-year span, at least 35 dolphins died from injuries that they sustained as a result of being tangled in fishing line.

        I pick up large amounts of fishing line along and in the Oregon rivers and streams where I fish. I've never seen a label or tag with the sportsman's name.

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    if you live in oregon Please Vote NO on measure 81 and save jobs, not only the Gillnetters livelihoods but hundreds of jobs for cannery works and other jobs.

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      Terry, Measure 81 contains language that allows any Oregon gillnet permit holder to apply for, and receive, permits to use the more selective seine nets of the type being tested by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The jobs argument is a red herring.

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        Steve, How will the fisherman invest in new boats and gear when your measure has just cost them $150,000 each with no compensation? Did I miss the language that mitigates the loss of their business?

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          If the gill net industry is willing to embrace the transition to more selective fishing techniques, we'd be happy to work with them in Salem on a transition plan to make new gear more affordable. The reality is that the industry has killed every previous compromise proposal, which is why conservationists were forced to turn to a ballot initiative, Measure 81, to address the problem.

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            Steve, Seven years helping the small family fishermen in Oregon and I've participated in all the so-called "compromise" proposals. No funding was ever guaranteed. Oddly,considering your empathy, it doesn't show up in Ballot Measure 81 either. Conservationists did not submit this ballot measure,it was Sen. Fred Garrard and the like.

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    Here is a point that is over looked and never talked about gillnetters raise fish. ODFW clearly admits 33% of bouy 10 fish kept, are these clipped net pen fish raised for gillnetting. The Mitchell act is fedral money and BP money put in to raise these fish. Also gillnetters put money into raising these fish. All gone if measure 81 passed (fish lost). 33% of the current fish lost. Bruce is doing a great job trying to educate people on these isssues. Some people just refuse to admit being wrong. Please vote no on measure 81 Oregon can't afford to lose anymore jobs. Big creek, gant creek, deep river, lewis and clark river, and the klasknine river all are heavily funded by gillnet dollars at work. please look into these issue before you vote these progarms will no longer exist without the columbia river gillnetter. VOTE NO ON 81!

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    As usual, the gillnet people seem to leave out some documented facts about gill netting. I've been attending hearings for years along with other long retired wildlife law enforcement officers trying for common sense rules like daytime netting, using log books like we were required in the Alaska Charter business, mandatory use of volunteer observers (and by that I mean allowing observers on the boats without the harrassment that seems to go along with it) and strict adherance to the rules. We have been told that adding a few common sense rules would put a hardship on the fishermen. I have personally witnessed blatant disregard for non target species. I have intervierwed observers who witnessed the non use of recovery boxes as required by law and the extension of drift times by as much as double the allowed, meaning the mortality rates spike. So go ahead and tell me again how clean that fishery is? Recent cases prove abuses still occur. I can add more but you get the point.

    I strongly urge a yes on 81 if for no other reason than to force the industry to clean it up.

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