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Best Salmon Run Since 1938

by Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press
Seattle Times - October 14, 2001

MAUPIN, Ore. After a spring and summer of chasing salmon with boat, motor and gill nets, Harold Blackwolf was savoring being back on a wooden scaffold over churning water, fishing the way his ancestors fished in a place they have come to since the beginning of time.

Tying a manila rope around his waist for a safety harness, he stepped to the edge of one of the nine wooden platforms lining the slick, black basalt rock at Sherar Falls, where a wrinkle in an ancient lava flow creates a natural bottleneck for salmon swimming up the Deschutes River.

He reached out with the net, woven by hand around a steel hoop lashed to the end of a 15-foot pole, and probed along a submerged rock ledge, going with the fast current until the hoop broke the surface, then swinging it out again and again until he hauled up a thrashing chinook.

"There were guys who used to wonder how such a little guy could pull those big salmon out," says the 5-foot-7-inch Blackwolf. "I would say, 'Because I'm ready. My whole body is ready to pull. It's a good feeling. I haven't had that feeling in a long time.' "

The 3 million salmon that came back to the Columbia River this year represent the strongest run since 1938, but beyond the good feeling that Blackwolf gets fishing in the old way for his family and his longhouse, this taste of the "good old days" is deceiving.

Despite more than $3 billion spent on restoring dwindling runs, scientists generally agree that this year's run is a happy accident of weather that won't last for long.

The economic bonanza enjoyed by the sport-fishing industry did not extend to commercial fishermen, who tied up their boats and gave away fish to protest prices depressed by foreign-farmed fish, which now call the shots in the marketplace.

Another good return is expected next year, but this year's drought and the California energy crisis left little water in the Columbia for fish, and downstream migration survivals were the lowest on record.

"The abundance and joy you saw on the river has little likelihood of repeating itself in 2003 and 2004," when those fish are due to come back, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

While habitat is being restored, it is not expected to bear fruit for 20 to 30 years, said Mike Matylewich, a commission biologist.

A stretch of good rainy winters the past five years made for unusually good survival for the young fish making their spring migration to the ocean, said Steve Williams, assistant director of the fish division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

When they got to the ocean, a rare combination of winds, temperatures and currents jump-started the food chain, welling up nutrients from the ocean floor so that tiny plants called phytoplankton could thrive. This made for lots of food for tiny animals, called zooplankton, and in turn small fish, and finally, the salmon, Williams said.

Future runs were damaged

Next year's is projected to be another good return, but no one is proclaiming salmon victory.

Drought left little water in rivers, where young salmon spend up to two years before migrating to the ocean.

California's energy crisis led the Bonneville Power Administration to declare an emergency, diverting what water there was and the young salmon in it to turbines and away from spillways in the federal hydroelectric dams on the Columbia. Fish coming down the Snake River were barged around the dams, but not so in the Columbia. What little water was spilled over dams came after most of the fish had passed.

The result was the lowest downstream survival rates as low as 19 percent for mid-Columbia steelhead since scientists starting measuring that sort of thing in the early 1990s, according to the Fish Passage Center, which tracks the migration.

Economically, this year's returning adults were a bonanza for the sport-fishing industry, filling motels, boat ramps, convenience stores and the boats of fishing guides in the Columbia estuary with happy fishermen and home freezers with fish.

As the run kept growing, fisheries managers kept boosting bag limits, until they hit six fish a day.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 158,000 angler trips one person fishing for one day at the mouth of the Columbia. That's more than double last year's, and more than 17 times the 9,000 trips in 1994, when returns were so weak federal fisheries managers practically shut down the ocean.

If people spend an average of $100 a day on motels, meals, gas, guides, bait and beer, this year's sport fishing just at the mouth of the Columbia has spread $16 million through the small communities along the banks of the river, said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association.

Another 70,000 angler trips were estimated along the Columbia's tributaries, for another $7 million.

"I'm willing to bet this is one of the few bright spots in the Northwest economy," Hamilton said.

Commercial business sinking

For commercial fishermen, it was a different story.

Columbia River gill-netters tied up their boats last month and gave away fish on the steps of the capitols of Oregon and Washington to protest prices held down by a market flooded with farm-raised salmon from Chile, Canada and Norway.

"We waited for years for these runs," said Jack Marincovich, executive director of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. "Our gas is up to $2 a gallon. We have to repair our boats. It's gotten to the point you're money ahead if you leave your boat tied up."

As the Northwest has struggled to reverse declining salmon returns the past 20 years, farmed fish have grown from a novelty to more than half the world supply, consistently available year-round.

The market dominance of farmed fish has moved the motivation for rebuilding salmon runs from restoring a mainstay of coastal fishing communities to cultural, biological, recreational and historical reasons, said fisheries economist Hans Radke.

"I suspect the prices we saw of high salmon will never be there again," Radke said.

Back to the beginning

Harold Blackwolf's cultural ties go back to the beginning of time, when Creator called together the animals and told them that a new kind of animal one with only two legs was coming to live among them. He asked for volunteers to help them survive, and the first to come forward were the salmon, offering their bodies as food. The deer, elk and others followed.

Each spring, at longhouses around the Northwest, Indian people gather to celebrate this gift of life, eating the traditional foods. After water, the first dish to be served is salmon.

When the runs were at their all-time low in the mid-1990s, there were fewer than 500 fish to share among the 14 longhouses of the four tribes that fished at Celilo Falls before it was sacrificed to a hydroelectric dam: the Yakima, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce.

This spring, the tribal quota was 62,500, or 15 percent of the spring chinook run of 417,000 fish.

Spring saw Blackwolf setting gill nets from his boat in the lower Columbia for spring chinook, fishing side-by-side with non-Indian gill-netters for the first time since 1977. With the coming of fall, Blackwolf was back at Sherar Falls on the Deschutes River, where his great-grandfather fished.

For Blackwolf, seeing the annual salmon returns restored is about going back to the ways Creator taught his ancestors to live, which includes fishing.

"We really think of the salmon and steelhead as a brother to us," he said. "We hold the salmon as a provider for the people."

by Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press
Best Salmon Run Since 1938
Seattle Times, October 14, 2001

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