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Ore., Wash., near decisions on gillnet ban

Jonathan j. Cooper, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions are nearing a decision on a push to ban the use of gillnets to catch salmon on the main stem of the Columbia River.

Oregon's commission is scheduled to vote Friday on the proposed new rules for the lower Columbia. A decision in Washington is scheduled for next week.

The proposed rules would phase in the nontribal gillnet ban over three years and prioritize recreational fisheries on the river's main stem. By 2017, gillnets would be allowed only in side channels.

The plan has angered many of the roughly 200 commercial fishermen who work the Columbia River and fear they won't be able to make a living if they're confined to tributaries and side channels. They've taken a skeptical view of the rules.

"There's just no way that this works," said Bill Hunsinger, a longtime commercial fisherman and leading voice opposing tough restrictions on gillnetting.

There's not enough room in the side channels to accommodate all the gillnetters, Hunsinger said.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber requested that the rules be developed as a compromise after a group of environmentalists and recreational fishing interests pushed a ballot measure that would have banned gillnets altogether next year. His proposed budget includes $5.2 million to increase hatchery fish in areas where gillnetters would be allowed to operate, and to help gillnetters to convert their fleet to use alternative nets.

Gillnets hang under the water surface and snag fish by the gills. Critics say gillnets are harmful to salmon restoration because they kill many of the fish they catch but can't differentiate between endangered fish and targeted species.

"That's really the principle behind this: How can we manage a fishery so these wild and endangered salmon can get back to their spawning ground and produce more wild fish?" said Jeremy Wright, a spokesman for Stop Gillnets Now, the group that initially pushed a ballot measure and is now aggressively lobbying for Kitzhaber's proposal.

Gillnet critics are advocating the adoption of seine nets, which form a circle in the water and trap fish inside. Endangered salmon can be separated from other species and set free. Seines are currently illegal in Oregon and Washington, and commercial fishermen question whether they could be economically viable on the Columbia.

Fish recovery plans allocate a certain number of endangered fish that can be impacted by fish harvests. These "impacts" are divided between tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries. Tribal fisheries are not impacted by the proposed new rules.

The rules would steadily decrease impacts allocated for commercial fisheries and increase the allocations for recreational fisheries.

Kitzhaber pitches his plan as an effort to improve both commercial and recreational fisheries. In a statement, he acknowledged that his proposal relies on assumptions that may not come to fruition, including that he'll be able to secure funding to enhance fishing areas off the main stem.

"This conflict has gone on too long," Kitzhaber's statement said. "It is time to come together."