COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho The Nez Perce Tribe in northern Idaho has started a commercial gillnetting season on portions of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.
Joe Oatman, of the tribe's Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the tribe this week began offering up to 20 commercial gillnetting permits to tribal members.
The season, announced Tuesday, will run Mondays through Fridays until Jan. 11, and could be followed by another season that would run through mid-April.
The tribe authorized the season on the Snake River from Lower Granite Dam in Washington state upstream to Hells Canyon Dam on the Idaho-Oregon border. On the Clearwater, the season would be "from the mouth upstream to roughly the Orofino Bridge," Oatman said.
Oatman said he expected only about four gillnetting permits to be issued.
"We've had only a few individuals express interest, and they are in the process of getting gear together," Oatman said. "This will still be more of a test fishery to figure out where we can effectively use gillnets."
A three-day gillnetting season last year drew only one tribal member who caught just one steelhead.
The tribe, as part of an 1855 treaty it signed in exchange for giving up lands, has a right to 50 percent of the harvestable fish within the reservation and from off-reservation fishing areas.
This season, that would be 61,000 steelhead.
Hatchery and wild steelhead swim up the Columbia and Snake rivers in the fall from the Pacific Ocean, then spend the winter in the Clearwater and Snake rivers before moving again in the spring, with hatchery fish going to hatcheries and wild fish to spawning areas.
The Clearwater and Snake favored among sport steelhead anglers have a surplus of hatchery steelhead for fishing. But wild Snake River steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and sport anglers must release them unharmed.
However, some of those fish die as a result of being caught, and federal guidelines allow 3.2 percent of the estimated run of wild steelhead to be killed in this incidental manner.
Gillnets catch whatever swims into them and kill both hatchery and wild fish. Tribal fisheries officials said they could catch 4.8 percent of the wild steelhead without damaging the run, but will curtail the gillnetting season if 1.75 percent of the wild run is caught as part of a "grow the fishery strategy."
"We would begin with a lower harvest rate and over the next three to five years look to build our capacity in terms of being able to access our 50 percent share of the harvestable fish," Oatman said.
As of Tuesday, nearly 33,000 wild steelhead had passed Lower Granite Dam. About 28,000 were headed for Idaho, said Oatman.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game said they had not been notified of the gillnetting season.
"Normally we would try to discuss seasons and regulations and proposals ahead of time," said Pete Hassemer, the anadromous fish manager for the department. "We haven't heard anything or seen anything regarding any steelhead fishery or gill net season."