Sustainable fisheries, sustainable economies

Implementing a license buyback program in the Columbia River commercial fleet

Columbia River commercial fisherman

The Columbia River is home to one of the oldest and most established non-Indian fisheries in Washington, providing fresh salmon to residents statewide who may not fish, but still want to enjoy healthy, local, and environmentally responsible seafood.

In recent decades, declining salmon runs, changes in Columbia River policy, and increasing global markets have resulted in substantial economic impacts to the Columbia River commercial fishery. This has led to fewer commercial operators utilizing the fishery and an increasing number of operators holding onto inactive licenses. Not knowing how many commercial operators might take part in the fishery every year creates uncertainty about fishing effort and the profitability for active fishers.

To stabilize and ensure the future health of this important fishery, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is requesting $1 million to purchase back licenses from Columbia River commercial operators.

  • This funding would allow the agency to purchase back up to 100 licenses from willing sellers in Phase 1 of the program at $10,000 per license.
  • License reduction programs have been used in various fisheries around the U.S. to “right size” the number of licenses to the available harvest. Similar to other programs, the intent in the Columbia River fishery is to rebalance licenses in order to improve the operational efficiency and economic viability of the Columbia River commercial salmon fishery and implement a key deliverable of Fish & Wildlife Commission Policy 3620.
  • Because Columbia River, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor licenses are linked all three fisheries will benefit from this license reduction work.
  • The program will support license holders and commercial fishing communities located in some of the most economically depressed counties in Washington.

Salmon fisheries play an integral part of the state’s marine conservation and salmon recovery strategies by targeting and removing hatchery fish before they reach spawning grounds and reducing competition for wild fish using those same spawning grounds.

  • Balancing the production of hatchery fish with conservation goals depends on both the recreational and commercial fishery to minimizes the risk that hatchery fish pose to wild populations and allow hatchery production levels to remain high for people, whales and all that utilize them.
  • Through a data-driven approach, license reduction will ultimately create a more streamlined fleet, providing remaining fishers with more consistent opportunity, and support the goal of Commission Policy C-3620 of increasing economic viability and stability in the fishery.
  • License reduction will provide managers with increased certainty about expected effort levels. This improves pre-season planning and in-season management capabilities, allowing for more predictable opportunity in the fishery. License reduction will support the durability of the fleet under variable resource conditions.

Strategic, deliberate, and phased approach

  • Initiating Phase 1 in 2021 will allow interested fishers to exit the fishery while the agency works with Oregon to review the CR Policy and develop future phases of the program.
  • The program would be voluntary and all Columbia River, Willapa Bay, and Grays Harbor license holders would be eligible to participate.
  • The goal is to purchase about 40 percent of existing licenses (up to 100).
  • WDFW’s goal is to partner with Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and the commercial fishers in developing future phases in order to remove both Washington and Oregon licenses and optimize the number of fishers on the Columbia River.
  • WDFW is exploring federal disaster funds, private financing, grant funding, and industry funding for future phases of the program.

The Columbia River commercial fishery provides Washington State residents with local, sustainably caught seafood and plays an important role in the local and state economy, supporting businesses throughout the supply chain including processors, buyers, restaurants, ports and other maritime-related businesses.

  • Recognizing the value and importance of this fishery, WDFW is working with industry to modernize the commercial fishery through three complementary efforts: license reduction, alternative gear development, and strengthening of local markets.
  • Creating a healthy, modern and viable fishery on the lower Columbia River will ensure the fishery’s social, economic and ecological contributions to the local economies of southwest Washington endure into the future.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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