Sparing Wild Salmonby Bill Monroe, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, April 26, 2001
Gill-netters try a new kind of net that allows them to release wild fish
ASTORIA -- Fingers moved frantically through 35 feet of nylon netting, seeking the wild spring chinook salmon trapped inside.
Vince Tarabochia got there first, but rather than violently pulling the webbing from around the mouth of the 20-pound fish, he tore several strands of the $500 net to free it.
As gently as a doctor treating a patient, fish biologist Jeff Whisler lowered the salmon into a box of cool, circulating river water and watched as it oriented itself and began swimming softly into the artificial current.
Within minutes, Whisler was dropping the fish back into the Columbia River. One whip of its strong tail and the salmon dove out of sight, to resume its upriver journey.
"Wow," said Whisler, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This really does work."
It had better. The future of 550 lower Columbia River gill-netters in Oregon and Washington is riding on the success of Tarabochia and 19 other research teams.
The new net that Tarabochia and his brother Brian tested Tuesday is designed to allow commercial gill-netters to catch and release wild salmon. If the experiment works, it would allow an industry that has jeopardized endangered salmon to improve its practices.
Call it environmental gill-netting, a paradox to critics of traditional commercial fishing that transfers salmon from the river to the market.
"This is absolutely the way we're going to have to operate from now on," said Brian Tarabochia, 33, a fourth-generation fisherman from Astoria.
The states of Oregon and Washington, with funds from the Bonneville Power Administration, are experimenting for the next three weeks with tangle-netting, a new commercial fishing technique developed in British Columbia to aid beleaguered fish runs on the Fraser River.
Instead of using nets with larger mesh to catch salmon by the gills, suffocating them, the mesh of the experimental nets is much smaller. It tangles in the fish's teeth and around its mouth, snaring the salmon without mortal injuries.
Participating fishermen buy one net of their own and add to it one of a slightly different size bought with BPA money. The efficiency of the nets will be compared to find the ideal mesh. Designed for the gills of much smaller fish, each net typically lasts only a few trips.
Tangled fish are brought aboard, where those with all fins intact are placed into the water of the recovery box. Salmon missing their adipose fins -- a small, unused flap in front of the tail that is clipped before young hatchery fish are released -- are kept and sold.
The brothers handled 40 fish Tuesday, keeping 19 that were hatchery-marked. They and Whisler released 14 wild salmon and seven steelhead. No fish died during the 14 times they set their 900-foot tangle net six to 10 miles upriver from Tongue Point.
Except, that is, for those stolen by California sea lions, which follow commercial boats, barking like children after the pied piper, then patrolling their nets like sharks.
Twenty commercial boats, selected by lottery from among 50 applicants, are participating in the research. They each get to fish one day per week through May 18, carrying a state observer who helps handle the releases.
Farther upriver, near Bonneville Dam, two gill-net boats are catching, tagging and releasing salmon to determine how many of the revived fish die after being released.
Carl Schreck, an Oregon State University fisheries professor, said little is known about what damage is done by removing scales or the salmon's protective coating of slime.
"It would become more problematic as the water warms up," he said. "I think it would be OK, though, in these temperatures. Those fish are pretty doggone hardy right now."
Steve King, Oregon's salmon manager, said the research is critical to the survival of the non-tribal commercial fishery. "Beginning next year, in 2002, they aren't going to be allowed to keep unclipped fish," King said.
The Columbia's tribal fishermen will send observers to Astoria to view the process, but a spokesman said they were not interested in participating, nor required to.
"We don't advocate for any catch and release," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "The salmon comes back to either give itself up or to spawn. To judge a fish by the mutilation of a clipped fin is not in keeping with the tribal view of the completion of a life cycle. It's at the heart of the spiritual question."
John Skidmore, a biologist for the BPA who is handling much of the salmon-recovery funding, said the $356,794 tangle-net experiment is one of the ways the agency is trying to help endangered salmon. "We have to attack the problem on all fronts," he said.
On the boat, Brian Tarabochia said not all Oregon and Washington gill-netters are likely to participate. "Some of them think it's being rammed down their throats," he said. "But we're not going to fish without this."
His brother Vince, who said he didn't mind releasing salmon because it meant more fishing time, looked into the box at their 19 salmon. "Just another couple of trips and we can pay for the net," he said.
Then he glanced at his pink net, the only color available in the size he had to buy to take part in the study.
"It sure is hard to put a pink net on a gill-net boat, though."
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