The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has a tough task ahead as it tries to find some sort of middle ground in the debate over the use of gillnets on the Columbia River.
The problem is, despite the work of Gov. John Kitzhaber to mediate a longstanding conflict between commercial and recreational fishing interests, there might not be much middle ground here to claim. If that turns out to be the case, the commission’s top priority should be protecting jobs.
Gillnets snag fish by the gills and are the primary method of commercial fishing on the Columbia. Critics say they’re cruel to fish and have slowed the restoration of salmon populations because they can’t differentiate endangered fish from targeted species.
Commercial anglers say gillnets have been used for centuries and charge that the controversy has been blown out of proportion by sport anglers.
The issue was on the November ballot as Measure 81, which would have banned the use of gillnets. But Kitzhaber, worried that the measure would devastate commercial fishing in Oregon, pushed a compromise that would phase out the use of gillnets on the main stem of the Columbia but allow them on the river’s side channels. In addition, the governor advocates increasing hatchery operations.
Kitzhaber’s proposal was enough to convince the supporters of Measure 81 to suspend their campaign, which was rejected by voters by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. It’s obviously hard to say how the measure would have fared if the campaign had continued full-force to the end of Election Day.
We may find out in a couple of years, if the two sides can’t reach a deal.
Already, commercial anglers aren’t thrilled with the governor’s proposal; they say there’s not enough space or fish in the river’s side channels. “If we give away the main stem, there’s no way the industry can exist,” one said.
Washington state is experimenting with seine nets, an alternative that’s currently illegal in Oregon, but it will be several years before we know whether that’s a viable option. By that time, gillnet opponents — who resorted to Measure 81 after failing to get the Legislature to take action on the matter — may well decide to go back to voters with another ballot-measure campaign.
Kitzhaber has vowed to keep pushing for a compromise and says he’ll work hard to keep any potential deal from unraveling.
So that puts plenty of pressure on the commission. Under these circumstances, it’s not impossible to imagine the two sides working out a deal.
But if push comes to shove, we’d advise the commission to give first priority to protecting the Columbia’s salmon fishery and the jobs it supports.