VANCOUVER, Wash.- In an effort to provide sustainable salmon-fishing opportunity while upholding recovery goals for wild winter steelhead, Washington and Oregon fish managers are seeking greater flexibility in determining limits on wild steelhead inadvertently caught during salmon fisheries in the Columbia River.
Under a new impact proposal, backed by recent state and federal biological reviews which show improved health for wild steelhead populations, commercial fishers could have more latitude while selectively targeting abundant hatchery spring chinook, in a fishery that is constrained by incidental catches of protected wild steelhead.
"We will manage Columbia River commercial spring chinook fisheries in a way that results in a minimal impacts to steelhead each year, and certainly one that averages well below 6 percent over a multiple-year period," Guy Norman, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) Southwest Washington regional headquarters, said about the impact proposal.
The steelhead impact issue will be discussed in public meetings this month and next, including a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission workshop, scheduled Friday and Saturday (Jan. 14-15) in Olympia.
The new impact proposal for the commercial fishery would be combined with recreational fishery impacts into new management guidelines. The resulting increase in management flexibility for both fisheries will better enable both fisheries to access their share of spring chinook salmon and hatchery steelhead runs, Norman said.
"The proposed management guidelines promote wild steelhead recovery goals while encouraging innovative, selective commercial-fishing practices that further wild-salmon recovery," Norman added. "Supporting sustainable recreational and commercial fisheries is a central mandate of our fish management efforts."
While actual steelhead impacts vary from year to year, recreational and commercial salmon fishers' impacts have each ranged from less than 1 percent up to 6 percent of the wild steelhead population over the past several years. The vast majority of the recreational impacts occur in tributaries, while the commercial impacts occur in the mainstem Columbia River.
The new proposal, which allows mainstem Columbia wild winter steelhead impacts of up to 6 percent in a given year, was approved by federal NOAA Fisheries officials after a scientific review concluded that impact would not jeopardize wild steelhead populations.
WDFW biologists will recommend a 10 percent, overall, long-term-average impact guideline for wild winter steelhead handled in recreational and commercial fisheries combined. An overall 10 percent, multi-year average for wild steelhead impacts conforms to goals outlined in the Lower Columbia Salmon Recovery Plan.
The impact rate refers to mortality among wild winter steelhead that are inadvertently caught by commercial and recreational fishers seeking abundant hatchery spring chinook and hatchery steelhead in the Columbia and its tributaries. Most lower Columbia River wild steelhead populations are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
For the past several years, Columbia River commercial fishers have been using new selective tangle-net gear when fishing for spring chinook. Evaluations of the tangle nets show they reduce mortality to non-target wild salmon from levels seen in traditional gillnet fisheries. However, the smaller mesh size of the tangle nets causes more steelhead to be encountered during the spring chinook salmon fishery.
"The proposed realignment of impact limits does not change our intention to minimize wild steelhead mortality," Norman emphasized.
Norman said WDFW and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) will initiate a public process-involving both states' fish and wildlife commissions-to develop a joint policy for managing wild winter steelhead impacts in mainstream Columbia River fisheries.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission's briefing on the impact issue is scheduled for its Jan. 14-15 public workshop, at the Natural Resources Building in Olympia. The commission will be asked to provide policy guidance on the impact issue to WDFW fishery managers at its Feb. 4-5 meeting in Olympia. Public comment on the proposal will be taken at the February commission meeting. In addition, the issue will be discussed in a meeting of WDFW fishing advisory groups from 6 to 8 p.m., Jan. 21, at the Cowlitz Public Utility District headquarters at 961 12th Ave., in Longview. That meeting is also open to the general public.
The NOAA Fisheries biological opinion on wild steelhead impacts can be viewed at http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/1sustfsh/biops.htm on the Internet. Related biological assessments issued by WDFW can be viewed at http://www.wdfw.wa.gov/fish/crc/crcindex.htm on the WDFW website.