Commentary: A Mainstem Columbia River Free of Non-Tribal Commercial Gillnets on the Horizon


Long-term efforts to remove non-tribal commercial gillnets from the mainstem Columbia River have taken a big step forward with a multi-million-dollar commercial license-buyout program that was recently funded by the state Legislature.

This latest action traces its roots back to December 2012 when the fish and wildlife commissions from Oregon and Washington adopted a package of conservation- and science-based reforms with a focus on harvest management. A primary goal was to phase out the usage of non-tribal gillnets on the mainstem Columbia River.

While the past decade has seen these reforms significantly reduce the gillnetting in the mainstem Columbia River, the goal to phase out gillnets has not yet been met — in part because the reforms also called for a buyback of commercial gillnet licenses. Fortunately, the updates made to the state operating budget during the 2022 legislative session included $14.4 million for a voluntary-buyback program. This funding was broadly supported by the House of Representatives, Senate and governor.

The Columbia River is home to one of the world’s most expensive Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery efforts, where taxpayers and ratepayers fund nearly $1 billion annually in hydropower modifications, habitat improvements and hatchery supplementation. Despite the massive influx of funding, none of the 13 ESA-listed salmon and steelhead runs on the Columbia River have been recovered. Why? Because that means fully embracing the necessary changes to how these fish are commercially harvested — in particular, the use of gillnets.

Due to their non-selective nature, gillnets have been banned across the U.S. and in many countries around the world. Gillnet bans in Texas, Minnesota, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Hawaii have paved the way for a dramatic recovery in fish populations. In the Pacific Northwest, a region known for its environmental stewardship, it’s inconsistent to still allow the use of gear that doesn’t promote selective, sustainable harvesting.

I understand the important role of commercial fishing in the history and economies of many communities along and around the Columbia. I realize how this license-buyback effort may be viewed as the final chapter in a way of life. I know the salmon and steelhead runs are not where they are solely because of non-tribal gillnets in the mainstem Columbia River. But this generously funded buyback will pave the way for transitioning non-tribal gillnets out of the mainstem and into off-channel “SAFE” areas where hatchery-reared salmon can be harvested with much less impact to ESA-listed fish.

While it has taken longer than some may have expected — or hoped — to reach this point since the Columbia River reforms were adopted, it’s encouraging to see this pivotal investment in meaningful harvest reform. Salmon management in our state is starting to head in a direction that prioritizes the resource and benefits our local communities.


Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, serves Washington’s 17th Legislative District.