A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worker checks a gill net full of fish.

Tribes Oppose Oregon's Measure 81 Banning Commercial Gill-Net Fishing

Jackleen de La Harpe
10/26/12

Environmental issues are a major concern for tribes this election in the Pacific Northwest, and in Oregon, the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) and its four member tribes are opposing a politically compromised ballot measure that would ban non-tribal commercial gill-net fishing in the lower Columbia River.

Gill nets are set vertically, designed to catch fish by their gills as they swim through. Proponents of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 81, primarily sport-fishing groups, argue that gill-net fishing indiscriminately catches wild salmon, steelhead and ESA-listed fish and is detrimental to sustainable fisheries management. CRITFC characterizes the measure as having little to do with conservation and everything to do with reallocation of resources to powerful sport-fishing groups.

“Ballot Measure 81 is nothing more than an allocation fight between the recreational fishers and commercial fishers in the lower Columbia. It is a distraction from the real issues this region faces—rebuilding healthy and abundant salmon populations. We need to be working together to rebuild salmon runs, not fighting over who gets to catch the fish," said CRITFC Executive Director Paul Lumley, Yakama.

While Measure 81 explicitly excludes tribal gillnet fishers, CRITFC maintains that the fisheries are properly managed for conservation, said Grand Ronde tribal member Sara Thompson, a CRITFC spokesperson. The new rules, if passed, would create different laws for Oregon and Washington and complicate tribes' efforts to work with both states to create uniform fishing policies, she said.

Measure 81 also makes it illegal for buyers to purchase gillnet-caught fish, which could ultimately affect sales of fish caught by the more than 300 gillnet tribal fishermen. Culturally, many tribal members disagree with the practice of catch and release, in part because the data aren’t clear about the mortality rates of this strategy. A ban on gillnets misses “the big picture,” said Thompson, “that we need to be focused on rebuilding abundance. [Measure 81] is very divisive, doing away with one at the expense of the other.”

Tribes aren’t alone in their opposition. In August, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber publicly opposed the measure and directed the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to work with Washington State to draft new rules that would meet many of the same objectives as Measure 81—phase out gillnets in the mainstem of the Columbia River, transition commercial gillnet fishermen to off-channel areas where hatchery fish are primed to return, and allocate the majority of salmon to anglers.

Three key Measure 81 supporters—the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and Northwest Guides and Anglers Association—subsequently suspended their campaign. Despite the loss of support, voters will be able to weigh in on Measure 81, although it isn’t clear how it will fare. Supporters say polls indicate that the measure will fail; opponents are less confident, pointing to polls of both men and women that show approval at less than 50 percent.

But Kitzhaber's solution did not help, according to CRITFC Chairwoman Kat Brigham of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians, who wrote a letter on behalf of the commission objecting to the governor’s directives. They do not build consensus and will serve to shift the focus from rebuilding fish stocks through co-management work to pitting one group against another, she said.

“Rather than fighting over the scarcity of wild fish and divisive allocation issues between user groups, the region should be working together to increase the abundance of wild fish,” wrote Brigham. “The momentous allocation changes proposed and their likely adverse impacts on tribal fisheries are so significant that we cannot sit idly by.”

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