Fund to aid commercial gillnetters never tapped

$500,000 was supposed to be set aside every 2 years

Commercial fishermen use a gillnet on the Columbia River. A fund set up by the Oregon Legislature intended to help commercial fishermen transition to other methods has never been tapped. (COURTESY WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE via Portland Tribune)

SALEM, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE)  — A fund that was supposed to provide commercial fishermen $1.5 million to adjust to new regulations curtailing gillnetting in the Columbia River has never been tapped.

The Columbia River Fisheries Transition Fund, a 2013 creation of the Legislature, was supposed to set aside $500,000 every two years to provide financial assistance to commercial gillnetters through 2019.

The money was intended to help fishermen buy replacement gear and offset economic harms due to the expected phasing out of non-tribal gillnetting in the lower main stem of the Columbia.

The money’s not been used yet, and after some of it was reverted back to the general fund due to an accounting error at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Legislature is now poised to do away with the last $500,000 installment.

That leaves $500,000, a third of the amount initially intended, and it’s not immediately apparent whether commercial gillnetters will end up applying for or receiving the money.

Gillnets are hung vertically and catch fish by the gills. Their use is a source of a longstanding dispute between commercial fishermen and sports anglers.

But the issue has come to a head in recent years. These days, sportsmen have rights to most — 70 to 80 percent — of the catches in the main stem of the Columbia, depending on the season. That’s a fact most commercial gillnetters resent.

Gillnets were, back in 2013, likely to be phased out of legal usage on the lower main stem of the Columbia by entities other than tribes. The bill followed an agreement with Washington brokered by former Gov. John Kitzhaber.

But new regulations adopted by Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife commission in March differ from Washington’s. Oregon will allow commercial fishermen to harvest a greater share of fall chinook than Washington, for example.

Cameron Smith, acting deputy director for administration at ODFW, says an accounting error at the agency meant the first installment of $500,000 for the transition fund was reverted back to the general fund after the 2013-15 budget biennium, which ended June 30, 2015. But that issue wasn’t discovered until recently.

ODFW was supposed to move the money to the Columbia River Transition Fund, but failed to do so in time, Smith said, leading it to get automatically reverted to the general fund after the biennium was over.

After the agency caught the error earlier this year, Smith said analysts from the Legislative Fiscal Office and the Department of Administrative Services told ODFW the $500,000 couldn’t be returned because the sum had already been included in fund balance projections.

“It was our mistake, and we had to pay for it, I guess,” Smith said of the issue. “But, also, they knew that none of the funds were being used, so that, I think, was the real big driver. The funds weren’t being used, hadn’t been used and at that time there was no indication that they would be used.”

Matt Markee, a lobbyist for Salmon For All, an association of gillnetters, processors and fish buyers, said that the $500,000 that did make it to the fund in 2015-17 wasn’t yet spent because fishermen hadn’t found an adequate replacement for gillnets.

Fishermen also have to go through individual counties to apply for funds. And commercial fishing equipment comes with a hefty price tag.

“Nobody applied for any money, because what would they spend that money on if there’s no new gear?” Markee said.

However, he added it was possible that there were fishermen and counties who might apply for some of the $500,000 that remains in the fund in the near future.

The 2013 legislation also created an extra fee for sportsmen angling for chinook, steelhead and salmon in the Columbia Basin.

Money collected through that fee was intended to help pay for the transition.

It went to an “enhancement fund,” which was set up for administrative expenses associated with the transition, separate from the fund that was intended to make payments to commercial fishermen through counties, according to Smith.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.