Letter from retired F&W officers
Washington Fish & Wildlife Commissioners
1111 Washington St. SE
Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commissioners
3406 Cherry Ave. NE
RE: Proposals for Enhancing Compliance and Law Enforcement in The Columbia River Commercial Fishery
Dear Washington and Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commissioners,
This letter is authored and endorsed by a group of retired Fish and Wildlife Officers with more than 300 years of experience combined, much of it on the Columbia River enforcing sport and commercial fishing regulations. We are speaking out in this cooperative effort in the hope that we can improve the working conditions and effectiveness of current, thinly spread enforcement officers, promote conservation, and to improve the reporting requirements for the Columbia River commercial fishery. Our proposed regulations will bring urgently needed reforms to reduce the risk of illegal gillnetting and catch reporting on the Columbia River, which affects many ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks, but we see no reason why the proposed reforms should not apply to Puget Sound as well.
Since the Columbia River gillnet fishery began, the Fish & Wildlife officials on both sides of the river have relied on gillnet fishermen to report their own catches of salmon and sturgeon using “fish transportation slips” The procedure assumes that fishermen will list their entire catch on these slips at the time they sell the fish to processors and they will include their total poundage as well as the number of fish caught. The glaring defect in this reporting system is that fishermen may legally possess these food fish on the water without recording their catch at all. Gill-netters have no legal requirement to report a catch until it is either sold to a buyer on the water or transported to a buyer off the river. By contrast, sport fishers must record any retained salmon, steelhead or sturgeon immediately after catching it on a tag purchased with their angling licenses.
This lack of immediate reporting requirement for commercial fishers greatly complicates law enforcement efforts. Illegal fishing must be interdicted at the point of sale, gift or other use, rather than at the time of the catch. Another aspect of the commercial fishing laws, when joined with the lax catch reporting rule, invites a serious conflict of interest. Commercial gill-netters must sell either to a wholesale dealer or to the holder of a Limited Fish Seller’s Permit. The problem is that gill-netters themselves may hold both of these types of licenses. With these licenses, they may then sell fish directly to the public.
These licensing and self-reporting rules combine to create a nearly insurmountable law enforcement challenge. No simple record keeping law prevents a gillnet fisherman from retaining unrecorded fish for personal use, from transferring unrecorded fish to friends and neighbors, or from selling unrecorded fish on the black market. Over the years, law enforcement officers have attempted to interdict such practices, but the cases demand many hours of surveillance and tracking. This is due to the fact that there is no reporting rule, as with sport fishers, that would allow officers to check a catch, on the water when made, for proper recording by the fisherman.
To this complicated matrix, add the fact that gillnetting is conducted at night. For law enforcement reasons, sport fishing for sturgeon at night on the Columbia River has been prohibited for more than two decades by both Washington and Oregon. Oregon and Washington restrict angling for salmon at night in many areas of the state. The same standard should apply to the commercial fishery, which is no less difficult to enforce than the sport fisheries, if not more so. As with sport fishing, darkness compounds the enforcement challenges for the gillnet fishery and makes the important work of protecting wild salmon and steelhead stocks from over harvest or poaching even more difficult. Night fishing closures should be universal in the same areas for all users.
In the past, managers believed conflict among sport and commercial fishers justified night gillnetting. This is no longer a valid argument. The number of fishing days has decreased so dramatically for both sport and commercial fishing that there is ample time for both groups to be on the water during the daylight.
Also, fishing areas are more concentrated now, as are the fish, dispelling the argument that fishers cannot net fish as easily in the daylight. The 2008 Spring Chinook season featured a day light gillnet fishery for the bulk of the season. Quotas were easily met and enforcement officers were able to effectively monitor the fleet throughout the season.
Over the years, concerned citizens have tried to shed light on the conflicts of interest in the reporting rules and the burdens posed by night gillnetting. Unfortunately, the Commissioners and Departments have favored the flawed status quo, even while salmon and steelhead runs continue their perilous declines. They have overlooked the basic conflict inherent in a system that allows individual businessmen, with the most to gain from subverting the system, to have unfettered control over the timing and accuracy of their catch data reporting.
A recent case has exposed the ease with which these rules may be manipulated to understate catch numbers and essentially swindle both States out of the poundage fees and accurate harvest records they are due. After an expensive two year investigation, members of Heuker Bros., Inc. a family owned commercial and wholesale fishing business near Dodson, Oregon plead guilty to falsifying fish catch records on over 50 occasions. They agreed to pay a $150,000 fine but will retain their licenses. They and the remainder of the fleet in Oregon and Washington may continue their gillnet fishing year after year, under the same defective regulations.
Fish catch records are used for more than just calculating poundage fees, but have a vital conservation role. Accurate records are important for monitoring quotas for various groups of fishers on the river and to protect sensitive or ESA-listed fish stocks from over harvest. Mandatory record keeping of bycatch, such as steelhead and sturgeon, is also important to provide an accurate assessment of impacts on non-target species. The Heuker brothers’ disregard for the resource, coupled with their ease in falsifying records, demonstrate the inadequacy of this self-reporting system.
These commercial fishing rules must be corrected. Even in the current fiscal environment there are simple, inexpensive ways to increase compliance and ease enforcement. Reporting rules must be tightened, the conflicts of interest must be removed, and night fishing must be prohibited.
An improved rule for documentation could state as follows:
Log books showing all catch activity while fishing shall be required. All fish must be recorded upon removing the net from the water and prior to travel or continuation of fishing (unless safety requires otherwise.) In any season where a weekly limit applies, fish must be recorded immediately upon retention by the fisher. All active fishers must carry this log book at all times while in possession of food fish. The log books shall be subject to inspection at any time by any law enforcement officer or employee of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A rule prohibiting night gillnetting could state as follows:
Fishing on the main stem of the Columbia River or in SAFE areas is permitted during daylight hours only. No commercial fishing boat registered in Oregon or Washington may travel on the main stem Columbia River during the hours of darkness with fishing gear on board, except that such boats may be in transit to or from fishing areas. Such transit may occur no sooner than one hour prior to official daylight and no later than one hour after official sunset for the area in which the day light fishing season is set. If a fisher is unable to comply with these rules due to circumstances beyond the fisher’s control, the fisher must immediately advise the United States Coast Guard of the situation on Channel 16.
Additional rules needed include:
For each and every boat engaged in gillnetting on a particular day, fishers shall report their boat identification and license number to a Department of Fish & Wildlife hotline and report their planned fishing location by zone.
Boats engaged in the fishery should have identifying block character numbers on the hull measuring 12 inches in height and of a color contrasting with the hull.
Any undersize fish or other fish not allowed to be kept under law or the season rules shall be handled with care and safely returned to the water immediately, or handled in accordance with rules for the tangle net fishery.
These proposed regulations are long past due, and we believe that serious enforcement problems with the gillnet fishery will continue without your involvement and assistance. We hope you will consider the above regulations for implementation as soon as possible.
Joe Schwab, OSP Fish & Wildlife Sgt, Ret.
CCA Oregon GRC, CRRAC
Jim Tuggle, WDFW Enforcement Sgt., Ret.
CCA Washington GRC, PSA
Ed Wickersham, USFWS Special Agent, Ret., Chair,CCA Washington GRC
Tom Ashmore, OSP Fish & Wildlife Major, Ret.
Glenn McDonald, OSP Fish & Wildlife Lt., Ret.
Richard McDonald, Former OSP Fish & Wildlife, USFWS, Ret.
Tim Johnson, OSP Fish & Wildlife, Ret.
Roger Nelson, OSP Fish & Wildlife, Ret.
Mike DeBolt, OSP Fish and Wildlife, Ret.
Glen Smith, OSP Fish & Wildlife Sgt., Ret.
Steve Shaw, OSP Fish & Wildlife Sgt. , Ret.
Phillip Knudsen, USFWS, Resident Agent In Charge, Washington, Ret.
Chuck Kohls, WDFW Enforcement, Captain, Ret.
Ken Jundt, WDFW Enforcement Sgt., Ret.
David Welch, WDFW Enforcement, Ret.
Cc: Governor Ted Kulongoski & Governor Chris Gregoire
Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men.
Wow! Thanks for posting this, Andre. I think the best thing is to eliminate gill netting completely in the lower Columbia, but, short of that, these rules should help endangered stocks to some degree, should they be enacted.
Gill-netters are sacred cows, long over-due for dehorning.
I hear that the night ban is the first step toward the eventual goal of getting all non-selective harvest methods out of the Columbia.
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