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As if we didnn't know they wouldn't be

Conservationists question use of innovative nets

BYLINE: By DAN GALLAGHER, Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: BOISE, Idaho

In early spring, chinook salmon enter the Columbia River estuary, many of the
shiny giants headed on their 900-mile journey to the headwaters of Idaho's
Salmon River.

In an effort to catch the hatchery-raised spring chinook and safely release
the protected wild ones, commercial fishermen at the mouth of the Columbia are
using tangle nets which snare them by the teeth, rather than damaging their
gills.

The Northwest Power Planning Council meeting in Boise last month pulled
continued funding for testing the tangle nets. The council called them effective,
but noted they caught excessive amounts of other fish.

Salmon and trout advocates view them as a danger to some of the region's
troubled runs.
"You would only say it's a success if you used questionable parameters for
success," said Jason Miner, conservation director for Oregon Trout.

The tangle net fishery is intended to catch lucrative hatchery chinook
without harming the wild ones protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Conventional 8-inch gill nets capture salmon by damaging their gills or
clamping them down, essentially drowning the fish.

The premise behind the live-capture tangle nets is that a smaller mesh size
traps the chinook in a non-lethal manner, snagging them by their teeth. The
commercial fishers examine the fish for a snipped rear adipose fin. If the fin is
gone, they are hatchery-bred and can be kept.

With a wild fish, the fishermen put them in a revival box - a tank with a
pump that supplies oxygen-rich river water. Euphemisms for the device are the
"Jesus box" or "Lazarus box" for reviving fish which appear long gone. The
invigorated wild salmon is then released.

The Columbia River Compact, the agency charged with running the commercial
fishery, in 2001 authorized tangle net use for spring chinook. A limited number
of fishing boats were picked to test them. Generally pleased with the
experiment, the compact expanded the net use to the full fleet in 2002.

But the 5 1/2-inch mesh net used in 2002 acted as a gill net on the smaller
winter steelhead which were headed to tributaries off the lower Columbia.

The compact allows the fishers to "take," or kill, no more than 2 percent of
those wild steelhead, to sustain the run.

Last year, of the 20,900 caught, 12,400 were wild, Oregon Trout said. Taking
in estimates of mortality during the capture or post-release, 2,400-6,100 wild
steelhead were killed, or 5 to 15 percent of the entire run.

The mesh size was changed to 4 1/4 inches and this year, the take of
steelhead was very close to the allowed limits. But fishermen claimed 113 percent of
the allowed amount of wild spring chinook, or 1,289 fish, Oregon Trout said.

"The mouth of the Columbia is an intersection of many listed species," Miner
said. "The fishery, if we could micromanage it accurately, would be beneficial
for fish recovery. But they have tried to manage it by changing net sizes,
which is incredibly problematic."

Mark Fritsch, Planning Council fish production coordinator, said his agency
is concerned about the incidental take.

"Selective gear has a lot of potential. Fishermen stay on top of their nets
and work them quickly to determine if they're wild," he said. "But these tangle
net projects had a history of issues. Every year, they've had a huge
incidental catch."

The council last month concluded fixing the problem is a matter for Oregon
and Washington fish managers, not Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said about $633,000 in
federal dollars were allocated to the states last year in testing the nets. They
indicated they may resubmit an application for the funding, saying they are
perfecting what is a new system.

The federal government spends tens of millions of dollars annually on
projects to improve fish habitat and passage in the Northwest, such as the tangle net
fishery.

Idaho conservation groups contend the only way to save those Idaho chinook is
the strong medicine of breaching four lower Snake River dams.

Miner of Oregon Trout questions the sense of the myriad experiments that fall
short of saving the disappearing runs.

"The thing that bothers us the most is we invest millions in habitat
restoration, all in the hope that a few fish will return and spawn," he said. "Then
you have an operation at the mouth of the Columbia which is killing thousands of
precious fish."
 
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