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Breaching Fever Reaches Coast

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, January 31, 2000

Commercial sector fears further fishing cuts

Sitka, Alaska, fisherman Eric Jordan works aboard his boat, 'I Gotta'. James Poulson special to Spokesman Review Alaska fisherman Eric Jordan figures he's not so different from a Palouse farmer.

A farmer's gotta farm and Jordan plows the waters off Sitka in a troller named "I Gotta (Go Fishing)." It's powered by a John Deere diesel.

"You have to be real resourceful at fixing things. You're up at dawn and a lot of times you're fishing right until dusk," Jordan said. "You have an attachment to the land, the creatures."

Like farmers, fishermen are hostages to the weather and they curse a growing pile of regulations they suspect are penned by people who couldn't tell port from starboard.

Now, an issue that affects farmers and fishermen is defining the limit of their similarities.

Often portrayed as the brainchild of radical environmentalists, the idea of breaching Snake River dams is gaining popularity in coastal communities where salmon is -- or was -- king.

Although commercial fishing groups long ago joined environmentalists in calling for breaching -- effectively the same as dam removal -- most of their members have been silent. They went largely unheard the last time the federal government hosted hearings about breaching and other salmon-recovery options.

Fishermen say that's changing in communities along the Washington and Oregon coasts, as well as in Alaska, a traditional Republican stronghold. With a new round of hearings starting next week, some commercial fishing groups are urging their members to speak out.

The change was spurred largely by a National Marine Fisheries Service report that suggested severe harvest reductions as one possible alternative to breaching the four Eastern Washington dams.

Saving salmon from hooks and nets is a popular alternative to breaching in dam-reliant communities from Pasco to Lewiston. Farm groups are among the most ardent opponents of breaching, saying the loss of barging made possible by Snake River dams would drive up their transportation costs, and could put some marginal farms out of business.

But the harvest cuts would hit particularly hard in Sitka and other southeast Alaskan communities, where one out of every 25 jobs is tied to trolling for salmon.

Alaskan trollers -- who catch 70 percent of the chinook salmon landed in Alaska -- already have seen their summer fishing season reduced from 160 days in the late 1970s to 11 days in 1999. Alaska's total catch of chinook fell by half in the same period.

Those reductions were largely to protect endangered runs of salmon that spawn in the Snake, Columbia and other rivers in the Northwest and Canada. The endangered fish mingle with others from healthy runs off the coast of Alaska.

"The cutbacks that we've taken have cost me," said Jordan, who learned to fish from his parents. "I'm 50 and I'm a super fisherman. I know how to catch them. But now I'm having to work at other jobs."

Trollers, who drag up to 40 lures or bait behind their boats, also catch coho salmon and have seen reductions in their catch of that species. But coho long ago disappeared from the Snake, so aren't affected by current restoration efforts.

Given the magnitude of Alaska's concessions to salmon conservation, there's nothing outlandish about calling for dam removal, said Ralph Guthrie of Sitka.

"To say it's radical is ridiculous," said Guthrie, a troller since 1941. "What is radical is to say you'll allow these fish to go away so you can grow a few potatoes."

Among the 13 federal hearings scheduled over the next six weeks is one in Sitka and one in Juneau. Alaska's governor has requested two more, in the isolated, salmon-dependent communities of Petersburg and Ketchikan, said Amy Skilbred, Alaska's salmon recovery coordinator.

The fisheries service ruled in December that harvest limits set under the Pacific Salmon Treaty wouldn't harm endangered salmon runs, Skilbred noted. Nearly simultaneously, the agency issued its "4-H" study saying harvest reductions of 50 to 70 percent might save Snake River salmon if coupled with increased water flows and habitat restoration.

Many Alaskans find that contradictory and absurd. Some wonder whether the government is saying farm jobs are worth more than fishing jobs.

Alaska fisheries biologist Mark Stopha said he's been reading with interest the concerns of Eastern Washington farmers.

"I'm realizing that this is really the first restrictions they're feeling (for the sake of salmon), where our guys have been cut to the bone already," Stopha said.

U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith heard much the same message at a Jan. 19 town hall meeting in Astoria, Ore. Participants said the Pendleton Republican was grilled by fishermen and business leaders for his staunch support of the dams.

Astoria once was home port to a fleet of more than 1,000 fishing boats, whose owners earned tidy livings. Now it supports about 700 boats, whose owners make most of their money fishing in Alaska or holding down other jobs.

"Any kid who wanted to go to college when I was growing up could get a job in a cannery for the summer and make enough to pay for a year of college," said Steve Fick, 43, owner of an Astoria fish-processing plant. "Most of those jobs have been replaced by burger joints."

Oregon's coastal communities have a higher than average suicide rate, state figures show. Fick attributes that partly to the decline of salmon.

"And then you get some callous senator who tells you, `I don't know what the solution is, but I'm sure it's not the dams,' " he said, noting that most scientists who study the issue say otherwise.

Smith's press secretary, Mary Healy, notes that while Smith won the state in the 1996, his Democratic opponent won by a narrow margin in Clatsop County. So it's not surprising that residents of the county seat would take exception to some of the senator's views.

"It's a fairly liberal part of the state," she said.

Bruce Buckmaster, president of the commercial fishing group Salmon for All and one of the participants at Smith's meeting, doubted the crowd included more than a few environmentalists. Mostly, he said it was business people and fishermen.

"Commercial fishermen usually don't wear Birkenstocks," said Buckmaster. "They tend to leak."

Groups like Salmon for All and the Alaska Trollers Association have joined with the Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United, Trout Unlimited and similar groups in a Seattle-based coalition called Save Our Wild Salmon. The coalition's goal is the removal of Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams.

Save Our Wild Salmon spokesman Chris Zimmer said the coalition is organizing rallies and street fairs for the upcoming hearings in Portland and Seattle. Smaller events may be planned for other cities, including Spokane, he said.

Save Our Wild Salmon recently sent out 50,000 mailers to sympathetic Northwest and Alaska residents, urging them to testify at the hearings and send a form letter to Vice President Al Gore, a presidential hopeful.

The Columbia River Alliance, which opposes breaching, is urging its members to send letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Aluminum manufacturers, power producers, barging companies and other industries that back the Alliance aren't spending as much on the issue as are national environmental groups, said Alliance Director Bruce Lovelin.

"There's a school of thought that dams will never be breached and why spend a lot of time and money on it," said Lovelin. "The timber industry had the same reaction to the spotted owl."

Dan Hansen
Breaching Fever Reaches Coast
Spokesman Review, January 31, 2000

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