Commercial gillnet fishermen have responded to Columbia River fish management changes with a legal challenge declaring the rules invalid.
On Friday, a petition was filed in the Oregon Court of Appeals asking the court to review the validity of the recent changes. The petition was filed on behalf of Steve Fick and his company, Fishhawk Fisheries, as well as Jim Wells, a commercial gillnet fishermen and president of Salmon For All.
The petition was filed against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and cites objections to the new rule changes.
This is the first step. A motion to stay enforcement of the law is intended for this week – essentially seeking to halt the rules going into effect until they are reviewed by the court.
On Dec. 7, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4-2 to adopt the new management objectives, which would take gillnetters off the main stem of the Columbia River. This coming Friday and Saturday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will vote on whether to adopt them as well.
Ben Miller, a lawyer with the law firm that filed the petition, also sent a letter to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission Friday asking them to push back a decision on the rule changes.
“I would ask that you delay voting on the Columbia River Basin Salmon Management policy at your January meeting for at least another month,” he wrote.
The fish management changes were brought about by an initial proposal by Gov. John Kitzhaber in August 2012. In letters sent to ODFW and WDFW, Kitzhaber asked that new management objectives be adopted. In the following months, workgroup meetings that included industry advisers, convened in Oregon and Washington locations.
The changes in Oregon management will phase out gillnet use on the main stem of the river and reallocate commercial gillnet use to off-channel hatchery sites. The rules call for commercial fishermen to adopt alternative fishing gear, such as seine nets, which are currently illegal in Oregon.
“The ODFW rules should be invalidated because the ODFW rules conflict with controlling state law,” the petition states, referencing seine nets, illegality in Oregon.
The plan also reallocates more fish to recreational fishermen, with some salmon species being allocated at 80 percent for recreational and 20 percent for commercial.
“Petitioners provide Columbia River fish to public consumers throughout Oregon, Washington and other parts of the United States,” the petition goes on to say.
“Their business operations occur primarily in the lower Columbia River and involve the commercial fisheries affected by the ODFW rules.”
The legal document also points out that for generations Oregon has allowed gillnet fishing on the Columbia and it has given the consuming public a fair share of the salmon, sturgeon, smelt and shad caught in the river.
“The ODFW rules effectively abolish that tradition and cause irreparable economic devastation for these commercial fisheries and the coastal communities dependent on them.”
Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries, said that he has serious doubts about the procedure and the workmanship that went into developing the plan, with strong feelings about the lack of economic consideration.
“I wonder why this was thrown together in such a hurried fashion,” he said. “This is certainly not in the best interest of the consumers of the United States who pay for this fish.”
Fick said that the new rules would irreparably harm his business, which processes salmon caught by commercial gillnet fishermen.
“It would be a significant economic blow to my business to not have access to the Columbia River salmon,” he said.
If the new rules stand, he said, less volume would be going through his plant and profit margins would be severely hindered.
He said that the rules would harm the small businesses that gillnet fishermen have – and that these rules don’t take into account the cost of gear that will be needed to adapt.
Commercial gillnet fishermen attended workgroup meetings last fall and spoke at public comment periods. They criticized the plan in its entirety, arguing that there was not enough room to fish for hatchery salmon in off-channel sites. They also questioned where the money would come from for ramping up salmon production at the sites.
Gov. Kitzhaber released a letter in December stating he would assign $5.2 million from his budget to the new management objectives. Commercial gillnet fishermen stated that the amount wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of such drastic changes.
Throughout the process, recreational fishermen and conservationists sought to eliminate gillnet use on the main stem because of conservation concerns.
However, gillnet fishermen responded by saying that the net is selective in catching specific salmon species.
“There’s no conservation associated at all with this,” said Fick.“The basis for these rules is totally flawed, in my opinion.”
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission received the letter from Ben Miller Friday and it was distributed to the commissioners for consideration. The commission is made up of nine members. They reviewed the rule changes Dec. 15, but delayed action for a month to allow more public comment.
This story originally appeared in The Daily Astorian.
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