Director's Statement on Columbia River Basin Salmon Management Policy

March 8, 2019

In recent days, we have received a substantial number of comments about the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission's recent decision to modify the Columbia River Basin Salmon Management Policy and extend the use of gillnets on the river.  We'd like to share some information that led to their decision.

The commission, which sets policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), approved the policy in 2013 with the intent of promoting orderly fisheries, advancing wild salmon and steelhead recovery, and enhancing the economic stability of the state's fishing industry. One provision of the original policy called for transitioning the commercial gillnet fishery off the mainstem Columbia River by developing new off-channel fisheries and phasing in new selective fishing gear.

Recognizing the challenge of implementing these reforms, the policy provided fishery managers flexibility in implementing the transition if those initiatives "are unable to provide the anticipated catch and economic expectations to the commercial salmon fishing industry."

That, unfortunately, is the situation we now face.

Despite years of effort, no new off-channel areas have yet been established in our state and none of the alternative gear are fully tested and ready to support a viable commercial fishery (although test results for some options continue to look favorable). That is why the commission took action to extend the gillnet transition period, first in 2017 and again this month.

The goal of the Columbia River reform policy is to build a future for both recreational and commercial fisheries, not put the commercial fleet out of business. The policy, however, does call for allocating an increasing share of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) impacts that are allowable for harvest to the recreational fishery. In the spring chinook fishery, for example, anglers' share has increased from 65 percent in 2013 to 80 percent in 2017.

During last year's fall chinook season, Washington's policy allocated up to 75 percent of the allowable impacts to the recreational fishery, but Oregon capped the sport share at 70 percent. The two states agreed to manage the sport fishery at the lower rate to ensure concurrency with Oregon's policy and because it was consistent with Washington's allocation of "up to 75 percent."

At that level, the commercial fishery was limited to just four days of fishing in the mainstem Columbia River in 2018.  Further, average annual ex-vessel landings of all salmon species in non-tribal commercial fisheries have declined by 15 percent on the lower Columbia River since the policy was adopted.

This year, with the season-setting process approaching, the commission proposed modifications to its Columbia River Basin Policy designed to achieve concurrency with Oregon's rules and fulfill its objective to "enhance the economic well-being" of the state's sport and commercial fisheries. Key changes include:

  • Extending the use of gillnets until feasibility testing and implementation of alternative gear has been completed.
  • Maintaining the recreational fisheries' allocation for the fall chinook season at 70 percent of the allowable impacts rather than increase that allocation to 80 percent, as previously planned.  Delaying that increase would reduce fishing days in 2019 by less than 2 percent, based on model runs from previous years. 
  • Maintaining the recreational fisheries' allocation for the spring chinook fishery at 80 percent, unless the in-season run size exceeds the pre-season forecast by 129 percent. Only then would the states consider commercial fishing in the mainstem Columbia River.

These actions are not only important in sustaining the economic viability of the commercial fleet. They are also a key factor in maintaining federal support for hatchery production and achieving compliance with WDFW's hatchery reform policy for the lower Columbia River, because they play an important role in removing excess hatchery fish from wild spawning areas.

In 2017, NOAA-Fisheries announced a plan to significantly reduce the production of fall chinook salmon at hatcheries in the lower Columbia River funded under the federal Mitchell Act. The catalyst for this action was a federal Biological Opinion that found that the "proportion of hatchery-origin fish on the spawning grounds is well in excess of the limits" of recovery plans for salmon and steelhead listed under the federal ESA. 

We understand that gillnets are not the final answer to this problem. That is why we remain committed to developing new selective methods for commercially harvesting salmon in the Columbia River and implementing the objectives in the Columbia River Basin Salmon Management policy. 

Learn more about WDFW's Comprehensive Review of the Columbia River Basin Policy in 2018.