Letter to the Editor: Gillnet Fishery Is No Threat to Recovery of ESA-Listed Salmon


The Nov. 3 commentary by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, suggests that legislative efforts to remove the non-tribal gillnet fishery from the lower Columbia River is somehow a “win” for salmon and for citizens of Washington state, but the truth is far different. 

It’s more a reflection of legislators willing to spend the public’s money to support special interest groups. Sen. Wilson stated that the 2012 collaboration by fish and wildlife commissioners in Washington and Oregon, which included a phaseout of non-tribal gillnets, was a “conservation and science-based reform,” but that is misleading. 

I was a commercial representative on that working group. The science was minimal and not objective. It took only three meetings to develop new guidelines and goals that overturned years of prior science-based management. 

One of the promises in the 2012 policy was that the economics of the fishery would be at least maintained, or even improved. In reality, the economics were significantly reduced and have remained low despite some recent improvements in salmon returns, which have allowed for incremental improvements in commercial harvest. 

The notion that continuing to transition the commercial fishery to off-channel SAFE areas will benefit commercial fisheries and the recovery of ESA-listed stocks is completely false. SAFE returns, with a few exceptions, have never reached the modeled predictions. One valuable fall run in those areas has almost disappeared, and there is only one SAFE area in Washington and it provides minimal harvest. New areas were promised in 2012, but no new locations have been developed because there simply aren’t any that are appropriate.

Sen. Wilson touts the $14.4 million approved by the Legislature to buy back commercial gillnet licenses as another step toward salmon recovery. She doesn’t mention that the buyback includes a corresponding reduction in commercial harvest based on the licenses retired. Buybacks are intended to make a fishery better for those who stay involved, not to make the harvest quotas smaller. That’s why this buyback program wasn’t really voluntary. As a citizen, I think that spending public resources to remove a sustainable industry is a disservice to the citizens of Washington state.

The goal of this legislation is simple — remove the commercial fishery and provide more harvest to the recreational fishery, even though less than 10% of the public fish recreationally, and only a quarter of those fish for salmon.

This legislation has nothing to do with utilizing science to manage the salmon resource. The commercial gillnet fishery harvests within all management guidelines, and it impacts ESA-listed salmon stocks less than the recreational fishery. It selectively utilizes time and area variations to minimize interactions with critical ESA stocks. The large openings used in gillnets (mesh size) allow smaller fish of concern, like steelhead, to pass through without getting ensnared.

The gillnet fishery is no threat to the recovery of ESA-listed salmon. It provides healthy food to the marketplace, giving the general public access to our salmon resource in Washington, and is important to the rural economy of Southwest Washington.

Robert Sudar