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Driving the Salmon to Extinction

by Gene McIntyre
Statesman Journal, March 18, 2008

I've said for years, only half-kiddingly, that I was weaned on salmon. A person who resided in Astoria or nearby, and whose parents, grandparents, relatives and friends resided there, in many cases born and raised there as I was, didn't even have to be a fisherman or a cannery worker to eat a lot of salmon. I'm not certain people then knew how healthful to human growth and development that food was.

Fishermen and cannery workers actually gave away what some now consider one of the world's greatest delicacies. My family probably could have eaten it with every meal; nevertheless, believe it or not, we thought it a special treat from time to time to have hamburgers or some other meat. We ate turkey for Thanksgiving and ham on some special occasions, but some families didn't appreciate that "luxury." They savored instead a species of salmon or some readily available seafood for every meal, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Before I was born, returning to an era long before my time, that is, around the turn of the 20th Century or circa 1900, salmon was extraordinarily abundant. So abundant in fact that seining was practiced on the Columbia River. Seining was a way of catching salmon by which a sand bar in the middle of the Columbia River, directly off Astoria was used as the staging area. The seine net had lead sinkers on one edge and wood floats on the other. It thereby hung vertically in the water and was used to enclose a huge fish capture when its ends were pulled together. The seine nets were so large and heavy that horses were required to pull the catch in.

The river was so full of salmon during "runs" that each seining haul brought hundreds of mature salmon for processing, canning the catch mainly as the frozen and fresh fish market was yet decades away: refrigeration was in its infancy, if it existed at all, and ice. . . well, as you know, ice, it melts rather quickly. If preservation was needed outside of canning the catch, rock salt was used as was a smoking procedure. Later, when seining was outlawed, small boats used the same net design as was used in seining, but on a much smaller scale.

As a child, I can recall watching from our home, which was located just above where the Astoria-Megler Bridge is located on the Oregon side, as hundreds of so-called gill net boats with their one cylinder engines (called "one-lungers") made their way from Astoria's West End Mooring Basin, Warrenton and multiple other locations on the Oregon side of the river, and from Altoona, Ilwaco and several ports on the Washington side, to a spot in the river where each gill net boat "captain" and his "boat puller," chugging out into the river in their noisy 29-foot crafts, would endeavor to capture a good evening's catch. They'd lay out their net, wait until they believed an appropriate number had been caught in their net, and then pulled the net and its catch into the boat, using a somewhat crude mechanical device to assist them in their effort.

Once it got dark, the river was lit up as though a festival was underway. As I recall, every gill net boat had at least one white light on its short mast and the lights gave those on shore a sight of lighting display to rival any in the world, before or since. The Washington side of the river directly opposite Astoria was close to pitch dark, due to the nearly total absence of people living there, and no bridge existed in those days; therefore, it was a surreal panorama of bobbing white lights on a black backdrop not unlike a Hollywood movie setting.

It saddens me to know that in slightly more than 100 years time, due to hydroelectric dams, perhaps over-fishing, now the proposed devastatingly habitat-destroying addition of the proposed Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, a short distance up-river from Astoria on the Oregon side and inside the northern boundary of Clatsop County, along with the effects of other factors, like general pollution, to which the LNG is anticipated to add to and predictably kill the salmon and other species to the point of final extinction (All to be accomplished by destroying fish habitat, fish feeding grounds, and pristine countryside to store and send LNG to California).

Meanwhile, it appears that salmon fishing will be stopped altogether from Cape Falcon (near Manzanita, Oregon or just south of Astoria) south to the border with Mexico while the fleet that once filled the Columbia River off Astoria must often now travel by truck and trailer to designated areas under restricted days even hours of use. The gill net boat is still used but it's often hauled around to locations fishermen from the lower Columbia River must use when the strictly designated areas are open to fishing. Meanwhile, the ocean-going troller, with its long poles and fish lines, must go out to sea in order to fish for salmon and also for tuna.

It's a sad commentary on what's become of a way of life that brought the American dream to a lot of Oregon and Washington families that located along the Columbia River, not to mention the Native Americans who fished those waters for hundreds of years before the whites arrived. The costs and limitations on fishing for a living have caused many to search elsewhere for work or spend excessive amounts of money just to get to where they must go to fish.

Selfishly, (no pun intended), I miss the delicacy of the world famous chinook salmon, especially when it's caught just before or soon after it enters the Columbia River at the end of its four-year sojourn to swim to where it was born, spawn there, and then die as part of a life cycle for the fish species that gives its life to establish a new generation.

It's a curious thing to think that as a child, watching the fishing industry in what was even then the start of its declining years, although I didn't know it, that I was naive enough to think that what I observed would last forever. Incidentally, the salmon fish hatchery, once believed the answer to diminished stocks, has been found to be a bust as it can't compete for taste, texture or tenacity with the wild versions.

Gene McIntyre
Driving the Salmon to Extinction
Statesman Journal, March 18, 2008

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