Nez Perce Tribe Turning To Gill Nets, Drift Nets On Clearwater River During Spring Chinook Season To Achieve Harvest Shares; IDFG ‘Totally On Board’

By Eric Barker, The Lewiston Tribune, [email protected]

Feeling crowded out of the prime fishing spots in the Clearwater Basin, the Nez Perce Tribe will experiment with gill nets and drift nets during the spring chinook fishing season.

For the tribe, the move is about harvesting its share of the run, something that rarely happens in the Clearwater River and its tributaries during bigger return years. But the tribe also wants to make known its desire to have space and time for its members to fish in traditional ways and equitably share in the resource it helps manage.

Tribal leaders pressed that message when they met with leaders of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game recently as part of a twice-annual gathering where both sides communicate their wants and needs.

Idaho has lobbied the tribe to run Dworshak and Kooskia hatcheries at full production whenever possible. Doing so can make more fish available for harvest, and the three hatcheries managed by the tribe have been at full production for several years.

“We are kind of all about that, too. But we want to make sure our tribal members and their families can get to the rivers to be able to share in those benefits that increased production will have,” said Joe Oatman, deputy manager of the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries Resource Management and director of its harvest division.

But nets can be controversial with some people. Both the tribe and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are seeking to educate nontribal anglers about them, and build tolerance and space for tribal fishers to operate.

A key to understanding the shared resource is looking at how salmon and steelhead harvest is managed in the basin, who gets to fish where and how tribal and nontribal members like to fish.

Most anglers are familiar with harvest shares. Every year, fisheries managers forecast the expected abundance of salmon and steelhead runs and closely monitor actual returns. The number of fish above and beyond what is needed for spawning at hatcheries is deemed harvestable.

Fighting for a cultural cornerstone

When the tribe ceded 13 million acres of its territory to the federal government, it reserved the right to take fish from its traditional areas. That is spelled out in the Treaty of 1855. Courts have affirmed tribal fishing rights, and now legal precedent dictates that the harvestable surplus of salmon and steelhead runs are divided evenly between tribal and nontribal anglers, with each side having the right to a 50% share. But it doesn’t always play out that way.

During the 2022 run, the tribe harvested about 2,400 spring chinook from the Clearwater River and its tributaries. That was about 3,200 short of its harvest share. Sport anglers also came up short, but only by about 860 fish.

Oatman said the tribe frequently misses its Clearwater River harvest share by a wide margin. The culprit is limited access driven by large numbers of nontribal anglers that vastly outnumber tribal fishers.

“From our perspective, our access to the river is being interfered with or impeded by the sport anglers,” Oatman said.

Idaho manages its fishery to spread harvest and fishing opportunity up and down the river. Anglers fish by boat and from the bank. Nez Perce anglers generally fish within a much smaller footprint and stick to areas where they have exclusive access. Most of their fishing is done from the bank.

In the Clearwater Basin, tribal members catch most of their fish in a short section of the North Fork of the Clearwater River near Dworshak National Fish Hatchery and an even smaller stretch of Clear Creek near the Kooskia Hatchery. Both of those spots are open only to tribal members. Oatman said tribal fishers concentrate there because they like to have their own space where they can be free of potential conflict.

“We don’t fish alongside sport anglers. The way we fish in our culture and why we fish are different. So conflict generally happens when we fish together and that is something we just try to avoid.

“Tribal members take out their families and it’s about going out there together free of interruptions and distractions,” Oatman added. “In the world we live in today, being able to spend that time on a river is so special and so meaningful, to be able to go out there and just kind of be who you are, a Nez Perce member with your family. You are out there camping and fishing and taking care of fish and socializing and enjoying your time.”

The Nez Perce culture, economy and diet is built around salmon. That was disrupted by the dramatic decline in fish numbers following construction of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

“Traditionally in the Nez Perce diet, salmon comprised 50% of our daily caloric needs, with the other half coming from wildlife, roots and berries and other traditional foods,” Oatman said. “Salmon, still for the tribe, is our primary food staple that we try to go out and catch to meet our needs and to have throughout the year.”

But doing that is difficult. Oatman said the tribe’s harvest of Clearwater spring chinook pencils out to less than one salmon per person. Using nets can help change that. It is something that tribal fishers have done during the coho and fall chinook runs.

Sport anglers asked to yield

Oatman said the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Committee is likely to open gill net seasons in the Clearwater between its mouth and Orofino. Drift nets may be used in the lower Clearwater closer to its mouth. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, has asked nontribal anglers to make room for tribal fishers by keeping an eye out for gill nets, which are anchored; give bank fishers in the North Fork ample space; and to be prepared to make way for drift nets, which move with the current.

“If you see the Tribe setting out a drift net, be prepared to pull your boat off anchor and give space for them to drift by. Please speak up and encourage others to follow suit because if just one person refuses to move, this strategy becomes ineffective,” DuPont wrote in an email distributed to about 2,000 sport anglers. “If all sport anglers don’t buy in, the only recourse we may have could be to close river sections to sport fishing certain days of the week to allow the Tribe to drift net.”

DuPont told the Tribune the state is “totally on board” with the tribe’s effort to harvest its share of the run and most sport anglers he has heard from are as well. But he has heard some opposition from people who fear that the use of nets will lead to overharvest, a concern he doesn’t share.

“The only thing that really changes is, in higher runs they will get closer to their harvest share,” he said.

Harvest share isn’t just ‘abstract’ numbers

Oatman has heard people describe gill nets as indiscriminate killers or walls of death that hammer wild fish. He said that description is better applied to dams. The use of nets is no different than other fishing methods and happens within the parameters of the tribe’s seasons, harvest share and its allowable take of wild fish dictated by rules related to the Endangered Species Act, when applicable. Spring chinook in the Clearwater Basin are protected by the state and tribe, but unlike those bound for the Salmon River, they are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“There is nothing in tribal culture or teachings that would allow us to destroy or kill off the very fish that are critical to sustaining our culture, health and wellbeing, and livelihoods,” Oatman said. “Rather, we are taught to do everything necessary to preserve and maintain these fish that mean so much to our families and communities. We are not the villains in this story. We are a people who need salmon and will do everything possible to bring them back to healthy and harvestable levels. We will continue to responsibly manage and use the fish we catch. We ask other people to respect that and give us the space and time to fish in the manner we always have.”

The concept of a harvest share is deeper than just a number. Oatman said it’s about opportunity as well, and without equitable access, the term is empty.

“Some people think of this as sort of abstract in some manner — harvest share — these are just numbers, right? But there’s so much to it. A number is having a livelihood, having a culture, having culturally appropriate foods, and having the ability to enjoy these areas that our people have enjoyed for countless generations,” he said. “It’s about being able to live and fish the way we want.”

Tribe’s crucial role in raising fish

The Nez Perce Tribe co-manages fish, wildlife and habitat alongside state and federal agencies within its traditional homeland and usual and accustomed fishing areas. It runs three of the four salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Clearwater Basin. It is also leading the way in restoring degraded habitat in an effort to boost overall lifecycle survival of the fish.

Its work in fisheries benefits both tribal and nontribal anglers. The best examples are the fall chinook and coho fisheries in the region.

Coho were hit hard by overfishing and habitat destruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Construction of the Lewiston Dam, which blocked access to spawning grounds on the Clearwater River from 1927-72, extirpated them from the Snake River Basin. The fish were declared extinct in the 1980s. Soon after, the tribe began an ambitious reintroduction project. It took decades to reestablish the run, but coho now provide a regular fishery.

Construction of Idaho Power’s three-dam Hells Canyon Complex that lacked adequate fish passage eliminated a huge chunk of habitat for Snake River fall chinook. Dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers, which have fish passage, also took a toll and the fall run was listed under the ESA in the late 1990s. Efforts to restore fall chinook and mitigate losses caused by the dams included hatchery programs, largely concentrated on the lower Snake. The tribe fought to extend hatchery releases upstream of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. Now that run supports annual tribal and nontribal fishing opportunities on the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater rivers.


The message Joe DuPont of Idaho Fish and Game sent to Idaho’s anglers:

Gill netting and boating together

Hi Everybody.

I want to make you aware of some changes that may occur in the Clearwater River basin. For those of you who attended our spring Chinook Salmon public meetings this year, you have already heard about this, but I suspect this will be new to many of you. This year, the Nez Perce Tribe may explore expanding the use of gill nets and drift nets to achieve their harvest share on salmon and steelhead in the Clearwater River basin, and I’m writing this article to help ensure these efforts can occur without conflict.

When fishing for salmon or steelhead in the Clearwater River basin, the harvest share dictates the number of fish that both Tribal and sport anglers are allowed to harvest. This harvest share is the same regardless of where or how each party fishes within the Clearwater basin.

One big difference between Tribal and sport fisheries is there are many more sport anglers (potentially thousands) than Tribal fishers (hundreds). This is important because when the salmon or steelhead return is large, simply increasing the daily limit is typically all that is needed for sport anglers to achieve their harvest share. However, for the Tribe, achieving their share can be difficult during large returns because they don’t have as many fishers. For example, last year the spring Chinook Salmon harvest share in the Clearwater basin was 5,735 fish for each party, and the Tribe harvested 2,486 fish. In comparison, sport anglers harvested 4,872 fish.

One way for the Tribe to increase harvest is to utilize techniques that are much more efficient at catching fish such as gill netting and drift netting. Because these techniques are legal for the Tribe and using them doesn’t change their harvest share or the sport harvest share, IDFG is supportive of the Tribe using these techniques. The Tribe has actually gillnetted occasionally on the Clearwater River for some years now, and it has not affected sport anglers’ ability to achieve their harvest share or prevent the hatcheries in the Clearwater from collecting sufficient fish for broodstock. What is changing is increased netting efforts may be more common as the Tribe works to ensure they meet their harvest share.

Drift netting is a new strategy in the Clearwater River that the Tribe plans to test. Drift netting involves stretching out a floating net across the river and then allowing it to drift along in the current. A boat would float along with the net to keep it straight and potentially move it away from obstacles. At the end of the drift, the net would be pulled in and any fish that were entangled in the net could be harvested.

Drift netting

The Tribe has informed IDFG of plans to test out drift netting in the lower Clearwater River in the spring/summer of 2023. This technique is most effective at night, but the Tribe may also try this during daylight hours. Obviously, the Tribe can’t drift net fish if there are boats anchored in their path. As such, the Tribe has requested that we close this river section one or two days a week to allow them to test this gear.

Potential drift net areas in the lower Clearwater

IDFG sincerely believes that sport and Tribal anglers can learn to fish together, and closures are not necessary. We will be testing this out this season with the Tribe, and this is where we need your help and involvement. If you see the Tribe setting out a drift net, be prepared to pull your boat off anchor and give space for them to drift by. Please speak up and encourage others to follow suit because if just one person refuses to move, this strategy becomes ineffective. If all sport anglers don’t buy in, the only recourse we may have could be to close river sections to sport fishing certain days of the week to allow the Tribe to drift net. As the Tribe learns whether this technique is feasible and which locations work best, we will be able to provide more specific details on locations and times you need to be aware of.

The Nez Perce Tribe will likely continue to gillnet in various locations, and you may see more nets out if the run is large. One area you may see more gill nets is near the mouth of the Clearwater River downstream of the Camas Prairie railroad bridge. Even though this area is not open to sport fishing, people commonly boat through this area, sometimes in the dark. To help prevent running over a gill net, be sure to look for buoys and stay well away from the shoreline when boating in this area.

It is important to remember that if the Tribe catches more fish through netting, it won’t influence the sport fisheries harvest share or fisheries goals like distributing harvest across the basin and trapping enough fish to meet hatchery broodstock goals. This is about the Tribe obtaining their harvest share. These techniques are not going to decimate the run, they will just allow the Tribe to acquire their fair share of the harvest. It’s also important to realize this is not how the Tribe wants to catch all of their fish. If these techniques prove successful, the Tribe will have to work out how to fairly distribute harvest between Tribal members fishing different methods, but at the same time ensure they achieve their full harvest share during larger returns. We have spent many days discussing similar issues with sport anglers, and I can tell you this is not an easy thing to do.

Finally, I want to bring your attention to an area near the mouth of the North Fork Clearwater River where there has been conflict between Tribal and sport anglers in the past. This is an area where sport anglers can fish from a boat, but fishing from the bank is only allowed by Tribal members. Conflict has occurred when somebody anchors a boat near the shore, which effectively blocks off all shore-fishing opportunities. We don’t have a problem with people fishing from a boat in this area; however, when a Tribal member comes down to fish this area, sport anglers should give way. Providing at least 30 yards for Tribal anglers to cast would likely be appropriate. Otherwise, this Tribal exclusive fishing area is not meaningful. Again, we are counting on you to follow these guidelines and also speak up and convince others to do so as well. If this conflict continues, boat fishing opportunities for sport anglers in this area may be restricted.

North fork conflict area

The Nez Perce Tribe and IDFG have worked together and invested significant resources in the operations of the Clearwater’s hatcheries to benefit both sport and Tribal anglers. However, for each party to fully benefit from these returns, we must learn to fish together regardless of how we fish. There are examples throughout the Pacific Northwest where Tribal and non-Tribal anglers have learned to fish together, and fishing opportunities have not been lost. There are also examples where closures were required to reduce conflict. Respecting each other’s rights and fishing courteously together will ultimately result in the best outcome for all parties.

Thanks for your attention to this important topic.

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