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By Janie Har August 9, 2012

Would proposed ban target only Oregon commercial gillnetters, leave Washington fishermen free to use gillnets on the Columbia?

Oregon Ballot Measure 81 would prohibit the use of gillnets by nontribal commercial fishermen in the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Advocates of the ban say the outdated nets kill all sorts of fish, including protected native salmon.

Opponents, however, say the measure is nothing but a power grab by sports fishermen, who want more fish bites. Brenda Wall is on the board of Salmon for All, an organization that represents gillnetters. In a guest column published in The Oregonian, she argues that the ban  would allow Washington fisheries to continue to use gillnets in the Columbia River, but not Oregon fisheries.

"This ban will only apply to Oregon commercial fishermen. Washington commercial fishermen would still be allowed to use gill nets on the Columbia River," she writes.  

This prompted a query from a reader to PolitiFact Oregon: "Is it true that the measure restricts Oregon fishermen on the same river where Washington fishermen would not be restricted?" Great question. (Readers, send us more questions!) We’d like to add another question to that: Would a ban, if approved by Oregon voters, only apply to Oregon fishermen but exempt Washington fishermen?

To explain the answers to these questions, we need to give readers a quick rundown of how fish runs work in the Columbia River.

Oregon and Washington have concurrent jurisdiction over the Columbia, which forms much of the border between the two. Nontribal commercial gillnetting is authorized in the 140-mile stretch west of Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean. For the most part, the physical boundary between Oregon and Washington is sliced down the middle of the river. But as you move westward toward the mouth of the river, maps clearly show that more of the Columbia is within the Oregon state line.

However, fish don’t respect state lines, so the two states work together to manage for endangered species. Washington and Oregon together decide when to allow sports and commercial fishermen to fish on the river. Washington issues licenses and permits to its people, and Oregon issues licenses and permits to its people and the two states recognize the validity of the other’s licenses and permits in their part of the river. This is all highly regulated and tightly coordinated.

The ballot measure aims to amend Oregon Revised Statutes 508.775 to read: (1) Notwithstanding any other provision of the commercial fishing laws, it is unlawful for an individual to use a gillnet or tangle net to take salmon, steelhead or other fish in the inland waters of the state of Oregon. (new language is in italics, bold.)

So let’s say Oregon voters approve Ballot Measure 81 in November. Would the ban apply only to Oregon commercial fishermen, and not Washington commercial fishermen, in Oregon’s side of the river? No, state law applies equally to all. Would a gillnetting ban mean that Washington commercial fishermen could continue to use gillnets on the Columbia River? Yes, an Oregon ban has no authority in waters outside Oregon. Washington fishermen could continue to use gillnets on their side of the river. We could have split regulation down the river.

"This doesn’t apply to Washington," said Rick Hargrave, a spokesman for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Washington commercial gillnetters can continue to do their thing in Washington waters."  

Guy Norman, regional director for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the goal always is concurrent regulation. "However, if we are unable to attain concurrent regulation, for one reason or another, then each state reserves the right to set regulations within their respective boundaries," he said.

Certainly this ballot measure would upend the idea of reciprocity between the states. How that plays out, nobody knows yet.

For example, will Washington state allow Oregon fishermen to use gillnets in Washington water? Will Washington follow Oregon in prohibiting gillnets? Those are policy questions for Washington to address. Likewise, we don’t know the logistics of how enforcement might be carried out.

PolitiFact Oregon can’t rule on how Washington might respond should the measure be approved, because those decisions haven’t been made. But we can rule on what the measure says it will do, and there’s no real argument from the two campaign sides: Ballot Measure 81 prohibits the use of gillnets in the inland waters of the state of Oregon.

The point made by Brenda Wall is that the measure does nothing to prevent Washington commercial fishermen from using gillnets on their side of the river. The "Stop Gillnets Now" campaign objects to the assessment because Wall gives the impression that Washington fishermen can continue to use gillnets throughout the Columbia, when they wouldn’t. They would be limited to their side of the river.

It is not accurate to say that the Oregon ban would apply only to Oregon commercial fishermen. It is accurate to say that Washington commercial fishermen can continue to use gillnets in the Columbia -- so long as they stick to their side of the river.

One part of the statement is true and the other part is not true. We split the statement -- like the Columbia River -- down the middle and rate it Half True.

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Our Sources

Brenda Wall, "Gill-netting ban would hurt commercial fishing, won't save fish," guest column, Aug. 1, 2012
Interviews with Brenda Wall, board member, Salmon for All, Aug. 2, 6, 2012
Interviews with Rick Hargrave, spokesman, Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife, Aug. 7, 2012
Email from and interviews with Guy Norman, regional director, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Aug. 3, 7, 2012
Emails from Eric Stachon and Jeremy Wright, Stop Gillnets Now campaign, Aug. 3, 2012
Emails from Brian Gorman, spokesman, NOAA, Aug. 7, 2012
Oregon Department of Justice, Memo to Stephen Trout, Elections Director, Aug. 24, 2011
Joint Columbia River Management Staff, "2012 Joint Staff Report: Stock status and fisheries for fall chinook salmon, coho salmon, chum salmon, summer steelhead and white sturgeon," July 12, 2012
Oregon Secretary of State’s office, submitted language of petition to become Ballot Measure 81, July 19, 2011

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