The Ghost Nets of the Columbia River
Lost and abandoned gillnets can continue to kill birds and other wildlife for decades. It is time to get them off the Columbia River.
Ask the average Oregonian what a gillnet is and you will most likely get a puzzled look. Ask them what a ghost net is and they will likely be downright baffled. In the weeks and months to come, Oregonians will be learning a lot more about both.
For fish and wildlife, that public scrutiny is desperately needed. And so are emails, letters, and phone calls Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission, demanding action to reform the use of wildlife-killing nets.
For decades, the use of indiscriminate gill nets for commercial fishing on the Columbia River has been one of Oregon’s dirtiest environmental secrets.
In the Columbia, gill nets, which are constructed out of nearly invisible nylon monofilament plastic, are strung across the river in areas fish are known to travel. These net "curtains" are suspended by a system of floats and weighted at the bottom. The holes in the nets are large enough to allow fish to get their heads in, but when they try to back out, the netting snags on their fragile gills.
Gill nets don’t just kill hatchery salmon, they also kill wild salmon and steelhead—including fish from the 13 runs that are supposed to be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Worse, they also kill non-target species, from white sturgeon (whose numbers are in steep decline in the Columbia), to diving birds, seals, and otters. This is especially true of “ghost nets” – nets that have been lost or abandoned by commercial fisherman and left in the river.
Because nylon monofilament can take decades to decay, these nets can continue to needlessly capture fish, birds, and other wildlife year after year. And because of the political muscle of the gill net industry, the penalties for abandoning nets in the river are almost non-existent.
Earlier this year, over 140,000 Oregonians added their voices to the Stop Gillnets Now campaign, and put a measure (Measure 81) on the ballot that would ban gillnetting by non-tribal commercial fisherman on the Columbia River. Faced with a potentially bitter and divisive fight at the ballot box that could spill over into the 2013 legislative session, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber recently waded into the fray. In August, Governor Kitzhaber offered a plan to phase out commercial gill nets on the main part of the Columbia River, and institute important reforms aimed at combating the problem of ghost nets.
Governor Kitzhaber’s plan would re-locate commercial fishers to side channel areas of the Columbia where endangered salmon and steelhead are less likely to be caught. It would also implement requirements that gill net users promptly report lost nets, and institute new requirements for clearly tagging and labeling nets with their owner’s information so these rules can be enforced. It isn’t perfect, but it would be a giant step forward in protecting Columbia River fish and wildlife.
Oregon Wild, together with a broad coalition of other wildlife advocates, has endorsed the Governor’s compromise plan. Now it is up to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission to enact it.
Please take a few moments to send a message to the commission, and urge them to move quickly to enact the Governor’s compromise plan to reform gillnetting. For the fish and wildlife that call the Columbia River home, action cannot come a moment too soon.