Bill Monroe: Does CCA's bet in gill-net gamble indicate its hand was forced?
By Bill Monroe, Special to The Oregonian January 23, 2010, 10:00AM
Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian Spring salmon are the Columbia River's most prized -- and controversial -- catch. Jim Wells (left) and Brian Tarabochia pull the gill net out early on a cold morning on the Columbia. Like a methodical poker player suddenly switching to "all-in," the region's largest and potentially most influential player in sport salmon fishing is shoving all its chips forward in the gill-net gamble.
But is it by choice?
The Coastal Conservation Association of Oregon has launched a ballot
initiative drive to rid the lower Columbia River and tributaries of gill-net
fishing for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.
This, after the association and others failed to talk the 2009 Oregon
Legislature into mandating gradual shifts in salmon harvest away from
Even after that failure, the association's one-step-at-a-time strategy
appeared intact through summer and early fall as players began positioning for another run at the 2011 Legislature.
... until the ballot surprise, unveiled around Christmas.
CCA Oregon's initiative, if passed in November, will ban all non-tribal
gill-netting for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon statewide, i.e., on the
Oregon side of the Columbia River and tributaries, including currently
netted off-channel Select Area Fisheries Enhancement (SAFE) areas. It calls for an effective date of Jan. 1, 2011.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would have to use most of all of the angling surcharge fee increases to help the gill-net fleet transition into more selective harvest methods such as set nets and seines that don't kill fish.
Dave Schamp of Hillsboro, chairman of CCA Oregon, suggested the decision was inevitable after CCA learned of a separate, well-financed effort poised to launch a similar ballot initiative.
CCA was cornered. Its rise in popularity, after all (more than 10,000
members in a few years), was based in large part on the presumption the association would do just what the ballot initiative proposes -- end
Schamp acknowledged the association's more methodical approach had already raised eyebrows within the membership.
"They wondered what the heck we were doing," he said. The "what," Schamp said, was a shift in the CCA's emphasis from allocation to conservation. "We don't have anything against commercial fishing," he said. "What we've wanted all along is harvest reform."
So was CCA Oregon caught between a rock and a hard place, forced to act prematurely?
"One could draw that conclusion," Schamp said. "But we also didn't want the wrong petition out there; we wanted something with a high degree of success and we wanted to do it for the fish."
Forced or not, Schamp said CCA Oregon is confident of the initiative's
passage, citing extensive polling before the December launch. "It showed overwhelming support by a broad spectrum of voters for the end of gill-netting," he said.
The gill-net community is understandably prepared for a difficult battle.
Jim Markee, a Salem lobbyist representing the commercial fleet, said current statutes allow only gill-nets in the Columbia, not the kind of commercial fishing gear the initiative demands. That, he said, will effectively ban commercial fishing, leaving all returning salmon to sport anglers -- a message he will try to convey to voters.
CCA collected 5,000 signatures (2,000 were required) within days, Schamp said, to get a ballot title from the state attorney general. The comment period on the proposed title ends Monday. Chief petitioners are Schamp, Senator Fred Girod, R-Stayton, and Representative Rod Monroe, D-Portland (no, we're not related).
Its status can be viewed online by going to www.sos.state.or.us/elections/. On the top bar, go to "Elections," then scroll down and click on "Initiative, Referendum and Referral Log." On the form that appears, change the election year to 2010 and enter Schamp's name (or Girod or Monroe) as the chief petitioner.
Without being specific, Schamp said CCA Oregon will comment on changes it wants in the proposed ballot title. Review by the attorney general's office will probably delay publication of a ballot title well beyond the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen's Show on Feb. 10-14, Schamp said.
Markee said he will also submit challenges to the attorney general's office before Monday's deadline.
The secretary of state will require 82,769 signatures to get the initiative to the polls in November, but Schamp said the target will be at least 150,000. "We won't have any trouble at all getting way more than we need," Schamp said.
More problematic are the potential risks:
-- If the initiative fails at the polls, so will all or most of the impetus
for harvest reform at the legislative level -- perhaps for years or even
decades to come.
The initiative could drive a wedge in the Columbia River Compact, with
different commercial fishing rules on the Washington and Oregon sides of the lower Columbia.
-- A vastly lower or zero incidental mortality on wild salmon for commercial fishing could mean a major increase in the commercial take of hatchery salmon and, thus, lower numbers for sport fishing. That's contrary to the reason many CCA members signed up in the first place. Tribal gill-netters above Bonneville Dam might also face increased scrutiny of their take of wild salmon and steelhead.
-- Commercial gill-netting is already tightly controlled and, state managers say, is not exceeding its allowable incidental kill of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered.
-- The state Department of Fish and Wildlife would have to re-allocate
angling fee surcharges from the popular restoration and enhancement program to re-tool the commercial fleet.
Schamp acknowledged each potential pitfall but declined to debate or
elaborate. Instead, he repeatedly fell back on the conservation mantra.
"People have a lot of fear of the unknown. Our focus is on doing what's
right for the fish," he said. "Putting the allocation issues aside, the goal
is to eliminate a method of harvest that is not selective."
Markee, however, said federal protection of endangered salmon and steelhead will still allow the same number of incidental mortalities whether they're taken by commercial or sport fleets.
"This is not about conservation," he said. "Those fish are still going to be killed by somebody."