Commission now tasked with mediating gillnet fight

SALEM, Ore. (AP) The future of commercial fishing on the Columbia River is now in the hands of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission after a measure to ban gillnets failed on Election Day.

The commission faces the tough task of mediating a longstanding conflict between commercial and recreational fishing interests by the end of the year. After years of stalemate, Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked the commission to come up with new commercial fishing regulations that phase out the use of gillnets on the Columbia.

Gillnets snag fish by the gills and are the primary method of commercial fishing on the Columbia. Critics contend that they're cruel to fish and slow the restoration of salmon populations because they can't differentiate endangered fish from targeted species. But commercial fishermen say gillnets have been used for centuries and the controversy surrounding them is drummed up by sport anglers who want to eliminate competition for salmon.

After unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Legislature to ban gillnets, sport-fishing and environmental groups went directly to the people with a ballot initiative that spooked commercial fishermen who feared being put out of business. They spent nearly $700,000 but ultimately abandoned the effort after Kitzhaber announced his bid for a compromise.

The governor proposed phasing in a ban on gillnets on the main stem of the Columbia while allowing them to continue operating on side channels and beefing up the hatchery operations in those areas.

With only opponents actively campaigning, Measure 80 went down last week, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Commercial fishermen have taken a skeptical view of the governor's proposal, saying there's not enough space or fish in side channels to accommodate the demand.

"We've already given everything that we can give," said Bill Hunsinger, a lifelong commercial fishermen. "If we give away the main stem, there's no way the industry can exist. It just can't."

The Fish and Wildlife Commission has fielded dozens of spirited comments from people on both sides of the issue.

Washington is experimenting with seine nets, an alternative that's currently illegal in Oregon. Officials say it will be several years before they know whether seines result in a lower mortality rate for endangered fish. Commercial fishermen question whether seines would be commercially viable on the Columbia.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.