Purse and beach seines are now being deployed in the lower Columbia River in what is the first test of alternative commercial fishing gear on summer chinook salmon.
The tests represent a broadening of an effort by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife to evaluate the effectiveness of alternatives to the gill nets now used in commercial fisheries on the Columbia.
The idea is to evaluate whether gear such as beach and purse seines can be used to capture fish alive so that marked, hatchery salmon and steelhead can be harvested while unmarked, potentially wild salmon and steelhead can be released unharmed.
Such gear would harm fewer wild salmon and steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act while allowing the harvest of more hatchery fish, which can, if they stray onto the spawning grounds, have a negative impact on their listed kin.
Pilot studies conducted in 2009 and a full-blown study in 2010 were aimed at corralling fall chinook and coho salmon. All fish captured during the testing are released.
The states have contracted with commercial fishers to do the test fishing. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently approved the tests on summer chinook, a stock that is not listed under the ESA but that shares the river with sockeye salmon and steelhead during the summer fishing timeframe (June 15-July 31).
The sockeye and steelhead both have listed components. The summer chinook include both hatchery and naturally-produced fish bound, for the most part, to the mid-Columbia in central Washington.
ODFW has contracted with fishermen to operate three purse seines and two beach seines. Four of the nets will be tested for 10 days and one will be operated for 12 days. The gears allow the fish to be encircled while leaving them free-swimming. Fish can be identified and released by type or species with a minimum amount of handling.
Gill-nets ensnarl, and sometimes suffocate, the salmon and steelhead.
“The purpose is to determine if the gear is going to have a negative impact” on the fish it corrals, according to the ODFW’s Erick VanDyke, who is leading the project. He said the testing would continue until about mid-July.
Two purse seines are also being used this summer to test their effectiveness at catching American shad, a non-native species that has not been greatly exploited commercial in the past. Those fishermen are doing the test fishing voluntarily and are selling their catch.
Last year WDFW employed a total of 13 commercial fishermen in the testing, each getting 30 days on the water during the mid-August to late October time frame. Six of the fishermen used beach seine nets, five used purse seines and two used trap nets
The catch included 11,773 chinook, 8,774 coho and 2,312 steelhead. Both purse and beach seines proved to be effective capture methods, with purse seines being the most effective of the two gear types.
This year the intent is to use 16 fishers during the fall season, including the four for a mortality study. They will be spread out, again in the late summer-early fall, among the five Columbia mainstem fishing zones from Bonneville Dam at river mile 146 down to the river mouth.