http://www.columbian.com/12022004/sports/218264.html Increase sought in net catch of steelhead Thursday, December 2, 2004 By ALLEN THOMAS, Columbian staff writer State officials are pressing ahead with a request to the federal government to allow an increased kill of wild winter steelhead so commercial fishermen can net their allocation of Columbia River spring chinook. The Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife submitted the request in early January to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hoping to get the increase in time for spring 2004. NOAA's fisheries division wanted more information and did not make a decision. The states have provided additional data, modified the request slightly, and are seeking the increase in time for the 2005 spring salmon run. NOAA Fisheries allows no more than 2 percent of the wild winter steelhead run to be killed as incidental handle in the sport and commercial spring chinook fisheries. Washington and Oregon asked for the ceiling to be increased to 7 percent in January, but have scaled back to a 6 percent ceiling request for 2005. Wild winter steelhead headed for a variety of lower Columbia, mid-Columbia and upper Willamette tributaries are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. NOAA allows up to 2 percent of those protected fish to die in the course of conducting spring chinook fishing. In 2002, the net fleet handled almost 21,000 winter steelhead in the process of catching and keeping 14,238 spring chinook and releasing 14,489. The high steelhead handle caught state biologists by surprise. State managers and the commercial fishery face a conundrum. Nine-inch mesh nets can be used, which pass steelhead easily, but kill 40 percent of the released chinook. Nine-inch mesh can cause the commercial fleet to use up its allocation of upper Columbia chinook too quickly, leaving a portion of its Willamette fish uncaught. Tangle nets, which are 41/4-inch mesh, catch chinook in the jaw, not the gills. Only 18.5 percent of the chinook released from a tangle net die, which makes the upper Columbia chinook allocation go farther. But tangle nets catch more steelhead, thus the request by the states to allow more incidental take of wild winter steelhead. It is feared the 2 percent steelhead limitation could cause the netters to forego a significant portion of their spring chinook allocation. In 2004, the states did extensive test fishing in the lower Columbia to determine the relative abundance of spring chinook and winter steelhead. In nine spring salmon fishing periods, the commercial fleet killed 0.75 percent of the wild winter run, little more than one-third of the 2 percent allowance. Six of those periods were with the nine-inch mesh. "Our goal is not to catch steelhead and to minimize (their catch) in every way possible within the constraints of trying to get the chinook allocation,'' said Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The states want to use tangle nets because both chinook and steelhead released from the small mesh survive well, she said. "The problem is it does catch more steelhead, although the mortality rate for those steelhead is low,'' LeFleur said. "It is just that when you catch so many more steelhead with tangle nets, even with a low mortality rate, it doesn't take long to get to the 2 percent.'' Sport fishermen catch few winter steelhead in the Columbia during the popular spring chinook salmon fishery in late March and April. The information the states sent to NOAA in November concludes: * Populations are up for most wild winter steelhead populations for which information is available. * The overall risk to recovery or rebuilding of the wild winter steelhead populations in a one-year increase in incidental harvest from 2 percent to 6 percent is negligible. The states also propose an analysis of wild winter steelhead status and the risks from the commercial spring chinook net seasons prior to the net fisheries in March 2006. They also would like to investigate using a sliding scale on the wild winter steelhead harvest, allowing a higher rate on plentiful years and a more restrictive rate on down years. Increasing the incidental kill of wild winter steelhead is not popular with many sport fishermen and wild steelhead advocates. Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society, told NOAA the data Washington and Oregon provided to support the increase to 6 percent is inadequate. Winter steelhead counts at Willamette Falls are "less than accurate,'' according to Bakke, and only once did the falls count come close to matching tributary spawner tallies. Many smaller streams with small numbers of wild winter steelhead are not included in the analysis. The states' data ignore factors that do not support "their primary interest of increasing the kill of steelhead to allow a higher harvest of hatchery chinook,'' he said. Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in Vancouver in October that the state thinks the increase "biologically practical'' but needs an answer from NOAA. The final decision will be made in a public process, he said.