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Priest Works to Save the Salmon

by Cassandra Profita
The Daily Astorian, September 18, 2006

Social problems have escalated as salmon numbers decline

Irene Martin spends her weekdays in meetings with government officials as an advocate for wild salmon and commercial fisheries.

On Sundays, she delivers sermons to her congregation as a priest at St. James Episcopal Church in Cathlamet, Wash.

For Martin, saving the fish is another way to save her community, where many people depend on Columbia River fisheries to survive. And where social problems have escalated as salmon numbers decline.

In the Bible, she says, Jesus told his followers to "love thy neighbor."

Martin, herself a gillnet fisher, shows her love by working with Salmon for All and Save Our Wild Salmon to protect fish populations and remove hydroelectric dams on the Snake River.

"When I look at my congregation and we talk about what we're going to do, our neighbor is our community," says Martin. "The root of the issues in our community is the economics of fishing, farming and timber. I don't know much about agriculture or timber, but I do know about fishing."

Martin has lived in Skamakowa, Wash., for 34 years with her husband, Kent. She held a master's degree in library science when she arrived and joined the congregation at St. James. Later, when the church needed a priest, she studied for six years to be ordained.

Martin watched fisheries on the Columbia River decline to the point where gillnetters in her community - herself and her husband included - had to buy licenses to fish in Alaska just to make ends meet. Many women had to start working to supplement the family income, and St. James was called upon to provide childcare through its family center.

"We had to step up when fishing got really bad, as did all the industries, in the early and mid-90s," said Martin.

An accomplished writer as well as a gillnetter and priest, Martin decided last year to use her library research skills to publish her own independent research on the social impact of declining fisheries in Clatsop, Pacific, Wahkiakum and Grays Harbor counties.

"When economic conditions decline, it's very common to have social issues arise. What I did is go out and document it," she said. "There are a lot of issues facing the fishery and we needed as a fishing community to have some of the statistics to show people."

Martin found there were higher rates of alcohol violations, child abuse and poverty in the four counties on the Columbia River than in other comparable counties in the 1990s. She also documented higher costs of social services.

"I have met some wonderful people in the fishery, and I think they've been mistreated," she said. "I'd like to see if we can turn that around in some fashion. The kind of economy that is here and was once here can thrive again."

As an activist, Martin shares her research with officials to save the fish and the gillnet profession; as a priest, she is looking out for her neighbors and her community.

"My take on what a Christian is called to do is to grow that idea of who is my neighbor and expand it," she said. "It's easy to be in Salem and not realize that what you're doing is going to impact communities and families. These are very well-informed people, but you can't expect them to know what a community is like unless they've lived there or you've talked to them about it."

Cassandra Profita
Priest Works to Save the Salmon
The Daily Astorian, September 18, 2006

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