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Fight over gillnetting centers around one member of Oregon Fish and WIldlife Commission

SALEM — In the latest development in the feud between sports anglers and commercial fishermen over the use of gillnets in the lower Columbia River, a sports angling group is petitioning the governor to remove a state fish and wildlife commissioner who voted with three others to continue to allow the practice in late January.

The Association of Northwest Steelheaders submitted a petition last week signed by nearly 6,000 people calling on Gov. Kate Brown to remove Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster.

Buckmaster, a Brown appointee, has served on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission since 2015. Detractors argued at the time he was a lobbyist for the commercial gillnetting industry, a claim which Buckmaster denied.

Buckmaster, who is described as an advocate for "equitable use of natural resources" in his biography on the commission's website, declined to comment on the petition Monday. The Governor's Office also declined comment on the petition.

The petition also calls for Oregon's commission to adopt rules that align with a previous plan to phase out gillnetting altogether, as Washington's commission voted to do in January.

Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, said Monday that his group was "not opposed to the commercial fishing industry" and recognized that the industry played a role in Oregon's economy.

"The Steelheaders want to grow sport-fishing opportunities all across rural Oregon, and Buckmaster has shown he is not committed to that by attempting to derail the reforms," Rees wrote in an email.

A gillnet is a net that traps fish by the gills and capable of drawing in large hauls.

The commission voted in late January to allow commercial gillnetters to continue to capture a certain percentage of the hauls of certain species, with those portions depending on the season.

Sports anglers and environmental groups argue that gillnets can't distinguish between wild and hatchery fish, and that state legislation passed in 2013 called for eventually disallowing commercial gillnetting in accordance with an agreement with Washington.

Those on the commercial fishermen's side — including the Coastal Caucus, a collection of both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers — say that the legislation also called for optimizing economic benefits to the state and maintaining the economic viability of commercial fishing as well as sports fishing.

Recreational anglers are represented on the commission, but the Steelheaders say that the body is still "unbalanced."

Jim Bittle, who was praised by the Steelheaders in their petition as "an effective voice for recreational anglers throughout Oregon," was appointed to the commission in late December.

Gov. Brown warned the commission in a letter Feb. 9 that she expected the members to adopt rules in line with the bi-state agreement by April 3.

However, it is not explicit what the consequences for the commission are if they vote otherwise — a spokesman for the governor did not respond when asked if the governor would remove Buckmaster from the commission if they did not adopt rules in accordance with the bi-state agreement.

The commission is scheduled to meet Friday in Corvallis.

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