Columbia fishermen try out gillnet alternative

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) — Some commercial fishermen on the Columbia River are experimenting with alternative gear to avoid being shunted to side channels for using gillnets, which have been criticized as damaging to salmon restoration.

But even though regulators have given them a chance at late-returning coho salmon this fall, only a few commercial gillnet fishermen are expected to bear the cost of going out with tangle nets in the next two weeks, the Daily Astorian reported.

Fishermen have to pay for the gear themselves to test it out, and many are skeptical that the investment will be worthwhile in the long run.

Mike Wullger, however, is giving the new net a try. Wullger, a commercial fishermen for 37 years, replaced his traditional gillnet Tuesday with a tangle net with a smaller mesh, sized to catch fish with their teeth instead of gills and priced at $2,000.

"We've gone to pretty great extents to adapt," said Wullger. "A lot of guys are waiting to see if it works."

Wullger said he joined the trial tangle net fishery because he can still fish without a crew and doesn't have to buy equipment other than the new net.

"With this boat I can make some money," he said.

Gillnets are the primary tool that about 200 commercial fishers use to catch salmon on the Columbia. They snag fish by the gills, preventing them from breaking free. Critics say they aren't selective and kill many fish that would otherwise be returned to the water. Fishermen, however, say they can be selective through their practices, such as choosing times and places.

New regulations championed by Gov. John Kitzhaber move gillnet fishing to areas off the main channel of the Columbia. They're being challenged in court.

Under Kitzhaber's proposed plan for lower Columbia River management overhauls, seine nets that encircle rather than snag the fish could soon be set for testing as an alternative. Seine nets would allow fishermen to sort fish.

Gillnetters say that fishing method would mean only a few big operations would be viable because of the investment required for bigger boats, crews and nets.

Information from: The Daily Astorian.

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