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Originally published Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 6:18 PM

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Columbia gill-net hearing draws dozens of speakers

State wildlife commissioners heard testimony Saturday on a proposal to ban commercial gill-netting in the main stem of the lower Columbia River.

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TUMWATER, Thurston County — Commercial fishermen in Washington and Oregon say a proposal to ban gill nets from the main stem of the lower Columbia River would destroy their livelihood, while supporters say the plan would protect endangered salmon.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission heard from dozens of speakers on the issue at a public hearing in Tumwater on Saturday.

Commissioners are considering a contentious proposal that would phase out the use of gill nets by nontribal fishers on the main river by 2017 and give priority to recreational fishing there. The proposed rules would move the centuries-old practice of gill-netting, the primary commercial-fishing tool, to side channels and tributaries.

The wildlife commission is scheduled to vote at its next meeting, Jan. 11-12, in Olympia.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved similar rules on Dec. 7.

A bistate work group assembled by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recommended the gill-net ban and other major changes to salmon and sturgeon fisheries in the lower Columbia River. The group included three commission members each from Oregon and Washington.

Kitzhaber requested that the rules be developed as a compromise after a group of environmentalists and recreational-fishing interests pushed a ballot measure to ban gill nets altogether.

On Saturday, the proposal drew intense opposition from commercial fishermen, who warned of lost jobs and livelihoods from limiting the use of gill nets and said the proposal was more about allocating resources to sport fishermen than about conserving fish.

"There is no need for this plan," Georgia Marincovich, whose husband, Jack, is a longtime gill-net fishermen, told commissioners.

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

Washington has been studying alternative fishing gear to see whether it is safer for endangered fish. The most touted method is a purse seine, which encircles fish in the river, then is pulled shut at the bottom to trap them. People can sort out the endangered fish and set them free.

But commercial fishermen say the proposed alternative fishing gear — such as beach and purse seines — won't work, questioning whether they could be economically viable on the Columbia.

Otis Hunsinger, an Oregon commercial fisherman, said "this plan ain't going to work for me."

Hunsinger said he would have to buy more expensive equipment because his 24-foot boat is too small for seines.

Supporters, meanwhile, urged commissioners to approve the rules and protect the region's salmon.

Stan Brogdon, president of CCA Washington, a statewide advocacy group for salmon and steelhead, called the policy fair, forward-thinking and long overdue.

"Gill nets are incapable of selective harvest," he said, adding that the time had come to remove them from the main Columbia River.

Recreational fishers say gill nets are harmful to the recovery of salmon and steelhead — 13 species are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The proposed rules prioritize recreational fishing on the main stem of the lower Columbia and relegate gill-netting to off-channels, which would hold more hatchery-salmon releases.

The proposal would give sport fishermen larger shares of salmon in the main stem of the Columbia. It would also require sport anglers fishing for salmon and steelhead in the main Columbia and its tributaries to use barbless hooks beginning in 2013.

Jody Mather, who guides fishing trips in Washington and Oregon, said the proposal to prohibit the retention of white sturgeon would devastate his business.

"If you stop this fishery, you completely take the business that took me 16 years to build," he said, adding, "I'm done."

Tribal fisheries are not affected by the proposed new rules.

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