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Campaign targeting gillnetters takes class war to the Columbia River

Aerial view of Columbia River and Bonneville Dam
Aerial view of Columbia River and Bonneville Dam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
June 13th, 2012 COREY PEIN | Cover Story

.......... Only about 200 gillnetters still work in Oregon, sending fish to local canneries and the white china of Portland’s best restaurants. Their take represents a tiny slice of the fish killed every year by sport fishermen, sea lions and the Columbia River dams.

But this livelihood is being targeted for extinction by an unusual coalition of conservation groups, wealthy sport fishermen and businesses that cater to them. They call gillnetting an antiquated and inhumane practice that kills indiscriminately and causes gruesome deaths for aquatic birds and marine mammals.

“Anything and everything that swims into them are ensnarled,” says David Schamp, director of the 10,000-member Coastal Conservation Association of Oregon, one of the groups supporting the ban. “We believe a high percentage of whatever is captured perishes—and we don’t believe that’s a good thing.”

Proponents have so far offered little in the way of quantifiable evidence to make their case, and they’ve been unable for years to persuade lawmakers to ban gillnetting.

So they are pushing for a ballot measure this fall. Bankrolled by a political committee called Stop Gillnetting Now, backers have collected more than 92,000 signatures. They need 87,000 valid ones by July 6 to qualify for the November ballot.

The campaign has made for some odd alliances: Environmentalists are holding hands with one wealthy backer, Loren Parks, the conservative millionaire who financed many anti-tax campaigns and for years paid the bills for initiative activist Bill Sizemore. Parks put $20,000 of seed money into the initiative petition. Another wealthy sport fisherman, Norman L. Brenden of Olympia, Wash., has become Oregon’s biggest political donor, pouring $505,000 into the campaign war chest........

........... The measure would allow fishermen to use a different kind of net, called a purse seine that hangs like a basket underwater, then tightens around the fish before hauling them by crane into a boat. Ironically, Oregon voters approved a ban on purse seine nets in 1948, a measure supported by gillnetters.

“They were probably pitching the same arguments back then, that the seine was too effective,” says North, the ODFW Columbia River fisheries manager. “It probably came down to money like everything else…. It’s not that different from what’s going on now.”.....