Last year a record run of Spring Chinook Salmon swam up the Columbia River — but anglers were denied a fishing season after gillnetters exceeded their allowable catch.
A potential repeat of that scenario has hooked Luhr Jensen and Sons, Inc., into advocating for a reform of the state’s fishery system. Buzz Ramsey, regional sales manager for the local company, has reeled in help from Hood River’s bi-partisan legislative team.
“If they (commercial fleets) overfish we’re their buffer and that’s not fair,” Ramsey said.
He said Luhr Jensen lost $100,000 from last year’s shortened season and could face an equal or greater loss this spring.
Herb Good, a local fishing guide, said he is hesitant to book trips for people without some certainty that they will be able to cast their line as planned. And if the anglers don’t come, Good said other businesses, such as motels and restaurants, also sustain economic losses.
“This is the cleanest form of tourism the state could have and yet they discourage it by pulling the rug out from under us, it just baffles my mind,” he said.
The debate over the issue has heated back up with last week’s decision by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission. The state agency wants to reduce the share of hatchery stock allotted for the sport fishery and give that percentage to netters.
But an outcry has been raised over the decision from the beleaguered sportfishing industry. They contend it is unfair to further penalize these businesses which are already hurting financially because of past commercial practices.
Last April, anglers were denied access to the river between Interstate 5 and Bonneville Dam, the prime fishing area, after gillnetters exceeded their allowable mortality rate of wild fish. Members of the sportfishing industry believe that the recent ODFW decision is adding insult to injury since fishing licenses have seen the biggest fee increase in state history. Opponents contend that it is ethically wrong for the state to adopt a “pay more, get less” stance.
“They seem to be taking more and more away from us instead of trying to make sure everyone has a fair share,” said Sheilla Cannon, manager of The Fishery, a boat launch campground with tackle shop west of Bonneville Dam. She said the business is totally reliant on the sportfishing industry and when the season closed down for more than one month early in 2003, so did the revenue. She said many small businesses that cater to sportfishing cannot weather another year of major losses.
“I know the commercial fishery is fighting for their survival also, but I don’t think one group of fishermen should pay the price for another,” she said.
Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, has called for a meeting of legislators and other officials on Jan. 28. Both she and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Mt. Hood, want to address the issue of “equitable sharing” in an effort to keep the river open for anglers through the month of April.
“This is an issue that affects all Oregonians, it is about economics and creating the best environment to protect endangered fish,” said Smith, who has been meeting informally with sportfishing organizations for the past several weeks.
Another important point for consideration, according to Smith and Metsger, is that sportfishing better protects wild salmon, with a 10 percent mortality rate on released fish, while the commercial fishery is expected to have an 18.5 percent rate.
“Nature has given us a bountiful harvest and we need to take the best advantage of that for our economy,” said Metsger.
The limit on catches of hatchery stock are set by ODFW to keep the death of released wild salmon down to standards set under the Endangered Species Act.
The wild Chinook, an endangered species, make up about 10 percent of the annual spring run and are easily recognizable by an unclipped upper third fin. Traditionally, the ODFW has granted a 65 percent share of hatchery salmon to the sportfishing industry and 35 percent to gillnetters. This year the state agency decided to help out the floundering commercial fleet by giving them a 45 percent share and lowering the sportfishing catch to 55 percent. However, if commercial operations once again exceed their share then the difference will be taken away from sportfishing.
Smith and Metsger believe the legislature needs to consider buying out “grandfathered” commercial fishing rights. In fact, the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association has stated that the Columbia is the only river within the lower 48 states where non-tribal gillnetting is still allowed.
Although the commercial fishery was once a mainstay in Oregon, Metsger said the economic picture has changed, with less than 300 licenses now issued.
A national study by the American Sportfishing Association now credits that industry with generating four times the revenue of commercial fishing.
A 1996 federal study determined that salmon anglers spend more than $100 per day on each trip — although a study undertaken by the state of Idaho figures that amount at $500.
A full-fledged spring Chinook season below Bonneville is estimated by Oregon officials to provide more than 200,000 angler trips, producing at least $20 million in revenue.
In contrast, prices for commercially caught salmon have fallen over the past few years and this year’s catch of 18,000 salmon is anticipated to produce $1.75 million in ex-vessel dollars.
“The sportfishing industry is part of our tourism trade, our recreational trade and a good environmental use of a resource here in Oregon — this is the kind of balance that we have been trying to achieve for years,” Smith said.
Although Smith and Metsger empathize with the financial hardship facing coastal communities, they said businesses associated with sportfishing are also facing tough times. The two legislators claim that it is unfair of ODFW to help one industry at the expense of the other.
“Sportfishing has become much more economically beneficial to our state and yet the gillnetters have a ‘hang man’s noose’ around that industry and it is just outrageous that ODFW would come up with this recommendation,” said Metsger.