CCA PNW response to Obama salmon recovery plan

Let's Apply Sustainability to Fisheries Management

Posted on September 15, 2009


CCA Oregon response to Obama salmon recovery plan

It is ironic that Oregon strives to be a leader in sustainability, yet we continue to subject our wild salmon runs to unsustainable harvest practices that are pushing the fish toward extinction.
Each year taxpayers, electric utility rate payers and others collectively contribute about $1 billion to salmon recovery efforts, yet more than half of our region's salmon and steelhead runs are extinct. And while the Obama administration should be applauded for shining a light on salmon recovery efforts, that light is focused in the wrong direction.
There is a reason we have not moved the dial on recovery, or achieved better results from hatchery reform, hydro practices and habitat improvements; it is the way we harvest – and continually over-harvest – our fish. Currently, the commercial fishing gear used in the Columbia River and elsewhere (gillnets) is non-selective and kills large numbers of ESA-listed and wild salmon and steelhead. Gillnets are designed to entangle fish in the nets, leading to suffocation and death before selection is possible. All marine life that gets caught in a gillnet dies, from salmon and steelhead to seals and seabirds. Ironically Oregon, a “green” state, is one of the few places in the country to still allow gillnets.
We have the ability to restore our runs -- and our fishing economy -- by changing our harvest practices.
There was a time when Oregon used sustainable harvest practices -- you can still see the remnants of old wooden fish weirs in the Columbia today -- but the forms of commercial fishing gear capable of the live capture, selection and release of wild fish, known as selective harvest (seines, pound nets, fish traps), are currently illegal in our state. However, there is a silver lining.
Our neighbors to the North, with whom we share a vital river, are testing alternative methods of commercial fishing gear. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is conducting selective gear tests on the lower Columbia River this fall. The goal is to find an efficient harvest method that allows for the live sorting of wild and hatchery fish, enabling wild fish to be released unharmed.
Programs that advance the selective commercial harvest of a dwindling resource are the kind of efforts the Obama administration should support. Implementing the use of selective gear is an effective, achievable way to create a sustainable fishery for all stakeholders – both recreational and commercial – a solution that is supported by science. And, it opens the door to providing a greater return on the investment that taxpayers are contributing to salmon recovery.
Timothy Egan of The New York Times once remarked that, "In the Northwest, a river without a salmon is a body without a soul." The drive for new harvest methods is not about dividing up dwindling runs between recreational and commercial anglers or curtailing commercial fishing. It is about preserving the future, or in Egan's words, the soul of our region. Implementing selective harvest methods would allow all stakeholders, including the fish, to enjoy a much larger return on the billion-dollar investment we are making in recovery. If Oregon hopes to remain a leader in sustainability, the state needs to apply those same principles to our fisheries.
Bryan Irwin is the Executive Director for the Coastal Conservation Association in the Pacific Northwest. CCA is the largest non-profit marine conservation organization in the country.