OLYMPIA – Commercial fishers on contract with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) are beginning this week to test new types of commercial fishing gear in the main stem of the Columbia River .
These commercial fishers will be working with biologists through May to learn how various types of nets, floating fish traps and soak time -- the time fish spend in the nets -- affect salmon survival.
WDFW Director Jeff Koenings said fishing seasons, by necessity, have become more and more restrictive in recent years to protect depleted runs of wild salmon that often mix with abundant stocks.
"If we can improve survival rates for released fish, we may be able to allow more fishing opportunities on healthy stocks while also providing greater protection for specific runs that are in trouble," Koenings said.
A large return of adult spring chinook to the upper Columbia this spring spurred the Northwest Power Planning Council to recommend that Bonneville Power Administration award a grant of approximately $360,000 to Washington and Oregon to conduct the experimental gear testing.
The project includes four separate trials:
- Nets that are half tangle net and half gill net will be used within 10 miles of the Bonneville Dam beginning next week, to learn which type of net gives salmon a better chance to survive when they are released. Salmon caught in this trial will be given a colored, numbered jaw tag, and the tags will be counted through observation windows as the fish swim through the Bonneville and Dalles dams.
- Biologists will study how soak time affects salmon survival in a trial scheduled to begin in mid-April, using two commercial boats near Skamakawa. Captured fish will be tagged on the back with a floy tag and observed for two days before they are released.
- Twenty boats chosen by lottery will participate in a net trial from the mouth of the river upstream to the Bonneville Dam starting in mid-April. Fishers will use tangle nets in these trials and will choose from a variety of mesh sizes, net materials and net hanging techniques. The fishers may keep any hatchery, adipose fin-clipped fish captured during the trials but must release any non fin-clipped fish. The fin-clipped fish may be sold by the commercial fishers.
- Floating box traps will be tested starting mid-April where downstream of Camas. These traps, which capture salmon by funneling them into a small, webbed chamber, have had the highest survival rates of any gear tested so far but also have caught the fewest fish. Biologists are hoping to improve the catch-rate on the box traps.
Fish Biologist Geraldine Vander Haegen, who is supervising the Columbia River trials for WDFW, said selective gears are being sought because of problems inherent in gill nets, the traditional commercial gear. Gill nets often suffocate fish by compressing their gills or injure them as they struggle through the net. She said during last year's test fisheries conducted in Willapa Bay, one out of every four chinook and coho caught with a gill net died in the net or could not be revived to a condition where they were likely to survive.
By comparison, tangle nets are designed with a smaller, looser mesh to capture salmon by the head or teeth, allowing them to breathe while in the net. In last year's trials, one out of five coho and one out of 10 chinook salmon caught in a tangle net were in a condition where they could not be expected to survive if returned to the water. The testing in the Columbia may confirm the findings of the Willapa Bay trials or may lead to refinements in the development of new gears.
"We're really at the beginning of this testing, and we're expecting that these won't be the final gears we settle on for commercial selective fisheries," Vander Haegen said. "We're hoping that the fishers will take these ideas and run with them and improve them to make them better. That's what fishing is all about, really."
The sport season on the main stem is under way from the mouth of the Columbia River upstream to the Bonneville Dam. Sport fishers may keep adipose fin-clipped hatchery fish but must release any non fin-clipped salmon. The commercial fishers involved in the trial are the only commercial fishers allowed to fish for spring chinook on the main stem. Fish caught in the trials may be sold commercially.
The relatively small numbers of salmon that will be harvested as part of these experiments are not expected to impact the recreational fishery. Conservation impacts to Endangered Species Act-listed stocks and to other stocks have been analyzed by both the states and the National Marine Fisheries Service and are well within accepted limits.
All anglers -- sport, commercial and tribal -- are asked to return any numbered, colored jaw tags on fish they catch, along with the date and location of the catch. They may be returned to WDFW offices or mailed to Erik White, fish biologist, WDFW, 600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, WA 98501-1091. He may be reached by telephone at (360) 902-2677.
For more information on commercial selective fishing click here