Commission applauded for following the science
Serving on one of Oregon's independent commissions is often a thankless job. We owe our thanks to Oregonians who do so. It's not easy when the issues are complex and contentious. They don't get any more complex or contentious than fish allocation on the Columbia River.
That's why I applaud the January decision of the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission and take exception to unfounded criticism from some politicians and special interests groups. The commissioners followed the science and Oregon law with respect to both the 2012 Kitzhaber Columbia River plan and their duties as members of an independent commission.
We're not talking here about addressing fish decline. Thankfully, adult fall Chinook returns to Bonneville Dam over the last five years have been the highest since the Bonneville Dam opened in 1938. Moreover, the 2012 Kitzhaber policy is not about fish conservation, and has achieved none. This plan merely takes harvested fish away from commercial fishing families, who fish for all consumers, and gives harvest opportunities to sport fishermen who can get out on the Columbia to catch their own fish. A dead fish is a dead fish, if it results from a gill net, alternative gears, or hook-and-line sport fishers.
No, the issue is a Kitzhaber policy that has failed to meet its own goals. It was supposed to flip the commercial salmon harvest for consumers from the Columbia main stem to off-channel "Select Areas." Also, the remaining commercial harvest out of the main stem would, if feasible, come from "alternative gear" (seines) rather than gillnets.
As the then-governor wrote to the commission, he wanted to "advance the economic vitality of both the commercial and recreational fisheries and attain conservation improvements."
Indeed, the law implementing the Kitzhaber plan, Senate Bill 830 (2013) or ORS 508.980(1)(b), makes plain that that one goal of the plan is to "enhance the economic viability of Oregon's recreational and commercial fisheries." It also requires the commission take "adaptive management actions" if the "economic or conservation objectives" are not met. Specifically, these actions include "modifying or halting the schedule and degree of shifts in harvest and impact allocations." That's why the prudent commission took the steps it took in January.
ODFW tests of alternative fishing gears found no viable replacement for gillnets. It turned out that the seines put endangered steelhead at risk. Add to this the fact that the hoped-for two-thirds/one-third shift to the Select Areas for commercial fishermen never materialized.
In the face of these economic and biological realities, the commission exercised the "adaptive management" that the Kitzhaber plan and state law itself required if the plan did not work for all Columbia River stakeholders, including consumers of Columbia River salmon.
It turned down a staff recommendation that would have given more fish to recreational fisheries from commercial fisheries by reducing gillnet use in the main stem.
Its rebalance plan complied with the legal requirement to "enhance" the economic viability of both fisheries. In short, the commission was doing exactly what it's supposed to do. In fact, some current commissioners who voted for the Kitzhaber plan in 2012 voted for the January 2016 rebalance ("adaptive management").
Now, some sport-fishing interests and a few politicians that want commercial gillnetters and consumers pushed off the Columbia main stem are attacking the citizen-volunteer commissioners on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. True, the policy (temporarily) puts Oregon out of sync with Washington's policy. But the policy has the advantage of following the fish science — you might say, the facts on the river — and Oregon law. It's also a balanced policy that's in the best interest of all Oregon.
The effort to browbeat this commission into reversing its policy is just wrong. It's not the Oregon way. It's hard to maintain an independent commission when they are told, in advance, how they are expected to vote.
Gov. Kate Brown's office could not have said it better than it did in a Feb. 5 letter outlining the duties of this "independent governing body" to address the issues before it: "[I]t would be inappropriate for the Governor to intervene in this process."
Joan Dukes is a former Oregon state senator whose district included Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties, and parts of Multnomah and Washington counties. She was appointed by former Gov. John Kitzhaber to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in 2004, a position she held until 2012.