ODFW/WDFW Mismanagement of Columbia River Fisheries

Thursday, August 30, 2018

After years of frustration with failed agency implementation of the bi-state Columbia River fishery reforms, recent actions by ODFW/WDFW staff should alarm anyone who cares about the conservation of Columbia River fisheries and transparency in fisheries management.  If you are concerned about the [mis]management of Columbia River fisheries and efforts to undo the Columbia River gillnet reforms, please visit CCAoregon.org and CCAwashington.org to learn how you can help.

Columbia River Steelhead Conservation. 2017 and 2018 have seen extremely low returns of steelhead to the Columbia River, including ESA-listed “B-run” steelhead.  How has ODFW and WDFW responded?

2018 Fall Gillnetting.  The Columbia River Compact recently approved four mainstem commercial salmon gillnet fishing periods from August 21-August 30 between the Lewis River and Bonneville Dam.  This action was taken at time of higher than average water temperatures (~75 degrees) and a high ratio of steelhead in the river (~.7 steelhead for every 1 Chinook). These gillnet fisheries occur at night with no soak time limits or observer requirements - in direct conflict with a WDFW’s policy. Further, this decision came at a time when the steelhead run was coming in 50 percent below an already low forecast.  Seriously?

2018 Recreational fishery closures. On the other hand, on August 8, ODFW permanently closed the Columbia River at the mouth of the Deschutes River to all recreational fishing. ODFW staff could provide no quantifiable conservation benefits of this closures or rationale for not exploring less restrictive, but equally effective measures. On August 18, the states declared a “night closure” for recreational salmon and steelhead fisheries across a large stretch of the Columbia River to address concerns about this year’s steelhead run.  WDFW also closed all recreational steelhead retention in the very popular Drano Lake and Wind River fisheries. Finally, on August 27 the entire Columbia River downstream of Pasco was closed to all recreational retention of any steelhead. Setting aside the debate about whether these closures are necessary for steelhead conservation, the bias in the approach taken by ODFW/WDFW for recreational fisheries versus gillnet fisheries is alarming. 

Gillnet release mortality rate for steelhead.  In early 2018, ODFW/WDFW expeditiously pushed through an effort to increase future fall mainstem gillnetting by changing the mortality rates assigned to steelhead released from gillnets.  The ODFW/WDFW approach to modify the gillnet release mortality rates, which relied on unscientific observer data, represents a huge double-standard when compared to the approach that was taken for seines and other selective fishing gear. Despite promises of transparency, WDFW staff kept the proposal from the public for nearly a month after it was submitted to the Technical Advisory Committee.  More information about the biased, unscientific action is available in an April 17 letter CCA sent to NOAA fisheries.   

Steelhead bycatch in off-channel gillnet fisheries.  On September 5, 2017, several dead steelhead were discarded on and near the shore of the John Day boat ramp in Clatsop County, Oregon.  A single gillnetter who was fishing the Tongue Point off-channel area was identified as the culprit and prosecuted for the crime.  CCA alerted ODFW and WDFW about the incident and its obvious implications: steelhead are dying in off-channel gillnet fisheries where no steelhead mortalities are assumed to occur!  We are unaware of any action by agency staff to update the fishery models to account for these additional dead steelhead or require additional monitoring.

Summer Chinook Management.  In direct conflict with clear policy and regulatory direction prohibiting mainstem gillnetting for summer Chinook, agency staff and certain ODFW Commissioners promoted “flexibility” to allow a mainstem summer Chinook gillnet fishery.  CCA Washington sent a letter to the WDFW Commission opposed to this effort and comments by WDFW’s Ron Warren in support of the proposal.  On June 15, on a 5-4 vote, the Washington Commission narrowly voted not to allow a mainstem summer Chinook gillnet fishery. 

On July 7, ODFW/WDFW closed all recreational salmon fisheries above Bonneville Dam due to a reduced forecast of summer Chinook in what WDFW’s Bill Tweit called a “precautionary step.”   This precautionary step occurred just a few weeks after agency staff had promoted a mainstem gillnet fishery and just days after the upriver recreational fishery opened.  This is the same recreational fishery that is supposed to be prioritized for summer Chinook fishing - so much for that!  WDFW ultimately reopened some recreational fisheries above Rocky Reach Dam, but the damage to WDFW/ODFW’s credibility was done. 

Spring Chinook Management.  2017 and 2018 saw record spring Chinook gillnet harvests and profits in the off-channel areas – far exceeding spring Chinook harvests in all Columbia River recreational fisheries.  Despite this, ODFW staff sought to return commercial tangle gillnets to the mainstem during the 2018 spring Chinook fishery.  On a May 23 Columbia River compact call, Oregon staff voiced their support for a spring gillnet fishery and likely would have prevailed if Washington’s Columbia River policy didn’t prohibit commercial mainstem spring Chinook fisheries.  Oregon considered breaking concurrent management with Washington to allow gillnets to fish on the Oregon side of the river, but ultimately conceded – at least until next year anyways.

Background on Bi-state Columbia River Fishery Reforms.  First adopted in 2012, the compromise reforms were intended to improve the conservation and management of Columbia River salmon and steelhead fisheries.  In Oregon, anglers have been paying a $10 annual Columbia River endorsement fee to help fund the reforms.  In Washington, anglers have paid a $8.75 annual Columbia River endorsement fee to promote mark-selective recreational fisheries at a time when WDFW is advocating the return of non-selective gillnets to the Columbia River mainstem.

Improved conservation and selectivity in mainstem fisheries.  The bi-state reform plan was built on years of momentum towards selective mainstem fisheries to protect Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed wild salmonids and selectively harvest hatchery-reared salmon, which are both necessary to maintain hatchery production and fishing opportunity under the ESA’s conservation guidelines.  Key aspects of the plan included removing non-selective gillnets, implementing selective commercial fishing gears, and enhancing selective mainstem recreational fisheries.   

Growing the Economic Value of Columbia River Fisheries.  The bi-state reform plan has grown the overall economic value of Columbia River fisheries – recreational and commercial – through increased hatchery production to enhance gillnet harvests in off-channel commercial fishing areas and increased certainty for recreational fisheries throughout the Columbia River basin.  The plan also included a proposed buyback for commercial gillnet fishermen who did not want to shift to selective fishing methods. 

Failed Agency Implementation.  Unfortunately, ODFW/WDFW have botched key aspects of the reforms and remain committed to keeping the status quo rather than embracing the conservation changes necessary to conserve our salmon runs and resolve decades of conflict over the use of gillnets, which have been banned across the U.S. and the world.

Selective commercial fishing gears. Unlike their approach to guesstimating gillnet mortalities, WDFW required that a long-term release mortality study be done for seines.  The agency admittedly botched the study design and seines were assigned an inaccurately high release mortality rate that has prevented the fishing gears from being fully utilized. WDFW has taken no action in recent years to seek a correction to the release mortality rates (similar to their efforts with fall gillnets) or conduct a new study.  Not surprisingly, the gillnet community has also fought endlessly to prevent the implementation of selective commercial fishing gear.

Gillnet license buyback.  In six years, ODFW and WDFW have done virtually nothing to design, promote, or seek funding for a commercial gillnet license buyback as clearly directed in the Columbia River reforms.  This has been despite numerous requests by WDFW Commissioners and others to develop a buyback and fleet reduction program.