By Thomas Dulcich and Michael Barton
Oregonians are most fortunate to border the Columbia River, prized for its scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, power generation, irrigation, fishing resources, transportation, and a long list of additional values. We pay for the management of this complex resource with our taxes and utility bills; but if Measure 81 passes this November, Oregonians will have another distinction. We alone will be prohibited from enjoying Columbia River salmon and other fish caught by non-tribal commercial fishers.
Measure 81 bans a method of commercial harvest known as gillnetting, but it also includes a stealth provision: a purchase ban for Oregonians only. The “purchase ban,” found in Section 2 (2) of Measure 81, would prevent Oregon buyers and consumers from buying non-tribal net-caught fish from the Columbia River. If you live in Washington, you still would be able to enjoy Columbia River salmon. The same is true if you live in Washington, D.C., or California, or…well, anywhere but Oregon. What justification is offered for prohibiting Oregon buyers and consumers from purchasing Columbia River-caught salmon? None.
Measure 81 is the latest effort by sports fishing interests to increase their share of Columbia River fish at the expense of commercial fishing that supplies product to grocery stores and restaurants. Currently, fish are allocated among the small commercial fleet, sports fishers, and tribal fishers (who also oppose Measure 81).
What is the source of the conflict? Perhaps it stems from the industrialization of sports fishery and the resulting overcapitalization. The Columbia River commercial fleet, which fishes for consumers, is restricted by “limited entry” laws to a specified number of licenses (only 200 in Oregon). The “guide industry,” which markets day trips for hobby fishermen, is not limited in number by Oregon law. The financial barriers to entry to become a for-profit fishing “guide” are relatively low (a $50 Marine Board license, a pick-up truck, and a boat), so it has been easy, in the absence of limited entry, for this “commercial sport fishing” endeavor to become overcapitalized. Over the past 10 years, hobby fishers got 80% of the Columbia River Spring Chinook and 80% of the sturgeon, while the non-tribal consumer access fleet got 20%. The allocation of other runs also favors recreational fishers. Does it make sense for consumers to get even less?
The rationale offered by the backers of Measure 81 includes the claim that removing gillnets from the Columbia River will enhance fish conservation. This idea has been promoted with scary-sounding but unsubstantiated claims of widespread killing of other wildlife by gillnets. In fact, gillnets long have been the only method allowed by law and regulation for the commercial harvest of Columbia River fish, in large part because this is the method which has the least negative impact.
While he opposes Measure 81, Governor John Kitzhaber has ordered the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (and has “suggested” to the Washington Commission) that it adopt administrative rules severely restricting the commercial fleet by taking away the mainstream Columbia River and limiting commercial fishing only to very tiny back waters or side channels known as the “select areas.” The governor’s plan also will reduce consumer access to products of the Columbia River, such as the Spring Chinook salmon, Summer Chinook salmon, sturgeon, Fall Chinook salmon, and Coho salmon. The commercial fleet, composed of a few hundred small family businesses and several fish processors (mostly in rural Oregon and Washington), is of the opinion that Governor Kitzhaber’s plan will kill their industry and jobs―not in an overt, sudden way, but instead by slow death.
Why should Oregon consumers care about this? First, locally caught salmon is a very healthful source of natural protein, teeming with omega-3 heart-healthy vitamins. Second, Oregon taxpayers (and ratepayers) contribute through their taxes and utility bills to the ongoing work to sustain salmon runs, which must migrate through the hydropower system on the Columbia River and its tributaries. Given this financial investment, it is reasonable that all Oregon consumers―not just hobby fishermen―be able to enjoy Columbia River salmon. Measure 81 and Governor Kitzhaber’s plan are anti-consumer and anti-Oregon, and both should be defeated.
Thomas Dulcich is an attorney and one of the 200 Oregon gillnet fishing permit holders. Michael Barton is a member of Cascade Policy Institute’s board of directors.