Special Coverage: Salmon Standoff
by Scott Learn
The Oregonian, April 2009
The Columbia's spring chinook run is one of the river's most endangered, most prized
and most unpredictable. That spells trouble for the people who count on the fish.
They hunt all the way up to northern Alaska's near-freezing waters, lightning quick predators with triangles for teeth, devouring herring, krill and sardines, preparing for the journey home.
Guided by signals that biologists still don't fully understand, they hit the mouth of the Columbia River and turn left. For fishermen, they're a herald of spring as rhythmic and mysterious as a crocus poking through Northwest soil.
Their firm flesh, prized on barbecues and white tablecloths from Portland to Atlanta, is loaded with oil and omega 3s, a stockpile that will push them over as many as eight dams and leave them with enough power to dig through layers of gravel with tail fins left in tatters.
They're Columbia River spring chinook, the first up in one of the world's greatest salmon rivers. Waiting for them are the fish people, men and women with livelihoods, religious ceremonies and lifelong passions that depend on their arrival.
The spring chinook, pound for pound, are the Columbia's most valuable fish. But the wild salmon among them, down to an estimated 70,000 this year from millions not so long ago, are also one of the most likely to go extinct in the massive Columbia River system.
With so few to go around, they swim through a stew of politics and controversy that is fast reaching the boiling point.
Fish managers project a near record run, post-dams, of about 300,000 wild and hatchery fish this spring. But the fish have been slow to arrive, worrying tribal fishermen who stand last in line above Bonneville Dam.
Meanwhile, sportfishermen are backing a bill in Oregon's Legislature to bump nontribal commercial fishermen, most in Astoria and other towns near the coast, off the river altogether and into side channels. That would allow more sportfishing.
The Northwest's population is growing, putting more pressure on the river and the fish. And Endangered Species Act restrictions on fishing aren't getting any looser.
"We've got people at each others' throats," sportsfisherman Jim Martin says. "The conflict is getting worse and worse and worse."
It's March on the Columbia, dark and bone cold, the wind driving snowflakes into the green water. Through the windshield of Martin's 21-foot fishing boat, the lights from morning commuters on the Interstate 205 bridge are a watery smear.
At 61, Martin is a leader of Oregon's sportfishing lobby. He spent three decades as a fish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, his last years as salmon adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber. Now he's conservation director for South Carolina-based Pure Fishing, the world's largest fishing gear manufacturer.
That's the official stuff. Unofficially, Martin's a burly salmon evangelist in rubberized waders, eagerly sharing his boat with environmentalists and politicians. His yellow Lab, Kenai, named after the epic Alaska river, is usually along for the ride.
Visitors hear about the sportfishermen's agenda, the need to cut river pollution, to control sea lions, to remove Snake River dams to help wild fish. "I would rather be working on these issues here and now than doing anything else anytime in history," he says.
Martin started fishing as a grade-schooler, sometimes skipping school to get on the water in southwest Michigan, where his dad was a dairy farmer. Today, he's half fish biologist, half "maniac fisherman," he says, "just praying that I'll get a bite."
Sportfishermen are first on the river in the spring. On this frigid morning, there are maybe a dozen boats between the Camas-Washougal, Wash., boat dock and the Portland airport. On a Saturday in early April, there will more than 3,200, a record turnout.
Martin hunches over and pulls a herring out of a cooler. The night before, he soaked it in a mixture of brine, powdered milk and blue dye to make its scales shine, scenting it with anise oil. He cuts the head off at a bevel and pierces the body with a hook, setting it so it will twist like a drill bit in the water, mimicking wounded prey.
Once they turn into river water and toward their spawning grounds, spring chinook stop eating. The trick is to trigger the feeding instinct anyway.
Underwater cameras have tracked the spring chinook; dozens will sniff the bait before one bites. The fish fight hard when hooked, Martin says. "They're also the persnicketiest fish there is."
The spring chinook's natural spawning grounds are in tributaries along the Willamette, upper Columbia and Snake, as far as 800 miles upstream. The fish evolved to enter the rivers early, when high water gets them over waterfalls and into their home streams.
"They're the oiliest, fattest, most rich, most delicious of all the fish, the premium royal fish," Martin says, beaming. "I call 'em butter with scales. If you ever eat a Columbia River spring chinook, you're completely ruined for everything else."
Salmon news gets confusing fast. For the second year in a row, fishing for salmon in the ocean off California and most of Oregon is closed, prompting the states to request disaster relief. But those fish come from the Sacramento River, where salmon fare more poorly than on the Columbia.
Columbia spring chinook numbers are up in recent years, good news for fishermen. But much of those fish, more than three-quarters, are hatchery fish, not the wild, endangered ones.
Under federal law, every hatchery fish has its adipose fin - the fin on top near the back - snipped as a smolt. By law, the sportfishermen and nontribal gill-netters have to release wild fish.
But some of the wild fish still die, an estimated one in 10 of those hooked by sportfishermen. This year, sportfishermen and the gill-netters are allowed to kill 2.2-percent of the wild run between them, or roughly 1,400 fish. Once that number is hit, spring chinook season is over.
Martin's idea, now a bill in Salem, is to route the gill-netter fleet into bays and inlets near the river's mouth that hatchery smolts can be programmed to return to as adults.
Wild salmon typically don't frequent those off-river areas, so gill-netters would kill far fewer wild fish, leaving a lot more room under the 2.2-percent threshold. That would allow sportfishermen to greatly expand their season.
Gill-netters aren't buying it. But Martin says it's simple economics. Hook-and-line fishermen and commercial fishing guides take a long time to catch spring chinook - an average of eight "angler days." With four poles on a boat, in other words, it'd take two days to catch one fish.
Given the mania of sportfishermen, which translates to thousands of them buying food, gas and fishing tackle and repairing or buying boats for every day the season expands. Guides bring in tourists, too, who spend more money. Martin calls the proposed legislation "the salmon recovery act."
"I don't want parents to be taking their children to the museum to see these fish," says Martin, who didn't catch a fish on this day. "If these fish were in any worse shape, they'd be gone."
A few weeks later, 14 miles upriver from Astoria, Jim Wells stands in the bow of a 32-foot boat, the dawn buried by storm clouds. Beside him, a chest-high aluminum spool holds 900 feet of light-green nylon net.
It's quiet here, the river wide, broken by uninhabited islands and flanked by hills filled with rust-colored spring buds.
The boat chugs past a closed cannery on the Washington side, past silent boathouses once filled with the voices of children and odors of frying bacon.
Wells, 60, has gill-netted for more than 40 years. He heads "Salmon for All," a group of gill-netters and fish processing plants that fights for the gill-netters to remain on the Columbia.
Like other commercial fishermen, he's a jack-of-all-trades. He's crab-fished, trolled for salmon in the ocean, longlined at sea for halibut and black cod. In summer, he fishes in Alaska's Cook Inlet.
His voice is gravelly. The skin over his cheekbones is tattooed red from salt spray and wind.
His dad was into fishing, and he liked the life. "You're your own boss, no time clock to punch. I was able to raise a family doing it."
Wells and his friend and fellow gill-netter Brian Tarabochia are "test fishing" with an observer from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on board, part of the regulations on Columbia gill-netters that Wells calls the tightest in the world.
If they pull up mostly spring chinook, the gill-netters will be allowed on pockets of the river in force. If not, they wait.
Tarabochia kicks a lever on the floor of the bow and one of two spools slowly splays out a net. Styrofoam corks on top keep it afloat; the bottom drops to 36 feet.
Before 1970s restrictions set in, commercial fishermen could leave nets in the water for hours. Now the limit is 45 minutes. Tighter rules kicked in after Endangered Species Act listings in the early 1990s.
Eight years ago, regulators required the gill-netters to switch to "tangle nets" on the Columbia in springtime. The smaller nets, 4Â½-inch mesh compared with up to 8-inch gill nets, catch fish by the teeth instead of the gills, the better to keep the wild spring chinook alive.
At a signal from the state observer, Wells and Tarabochia slowly reel in the net, picking out branches and twigs and unraveling knots as they go. Midway through, a fish surfaces, rolled up in folds of netting. It's a steelhead, an oceangoing trout that commercial fishermen can't keep because of their precarious status.
The fish goes in a 3-foot-long "recovery tank" to pump extra oxygen over its gills. It's a hatchery fish, judging by the missing fin. Ten minutes later, it's dropped back in the river and swims away.
The wild fish mortality on gill nets, still used during the Columbia's more abundant fall run, can hit as much as 40-percent. With the tangle nets and the recovery boxes, that drops to around 14-percent, close to the sportfishermen's 10-percent range.
By morning's end, Wells and Tarabochia will snag a half-dozen hatchery steelhead on at least as many drifts, and no spring chinook. The disappointing catch means the gill-netters will wait.
"The average person thinks these nets are 'walls of death,' that they're indiscriminate killers," Wells says. "But this is scratch fishing. It's pretty hard."
The seals that hunt underwater and the sea lions that prowl along the net line have better luck. A piece of nearly devoured fish stuck in the net and a ripped webbing indicates the presence of seals. The one steelhead that bleeds to death after being hauled in has a bite out of its back.
The gill-netters were allowed to fish this spring. By mid-April, 140 boats landed about 5,000 spring chinook, fishing on three partial days.
In the late 1880s, spring chinook ran up to 3-million a year on the Columbia, with more than 1.5-million returning to the Snake. Around then, fishermen using fish wheels and set nets caught more than 1-million.
The first Columbia River cannery opened in Washington in 1866. When salmon canning peaked, 38 canneries worked the lower Columbia, 22 in Astoria alone.
All but specialty canneries are gone now. The fish fetch top prices, $7 or $8 a pound off the boat, at a time when other fish are scarce and fishermen's cash flow is low. It's also a boost for coast towns, where fish processing plants provide hundreds of jobs.
Fishery managers bumped gill-netters off coastal rivers long ago. In the late '90s, the federal government bought out about 300 gill-net licenses to reduce the catch.
The sportfishermen have numbers on their side.
The gill-netters, who trace their fishing roots as far back as six generations, have history on theirs.
They're fighting the sportfishermen's proposal to reroute all their fishing off the river. Today, they fish in four off-river or "select" areas, mainly Young's Bay near Astoria. Of last year's spring chinook catch, only a third came from those areas.
There's also not room to expand, Wells says. Later, on shore, he drives to the gill-netters' designated spot in Blind Slough, a channel barely wide enough for a tangle net. His face creases with disgust.
Under the sportfishermen's plans, the prescribed number of wild fish will still die, Wells says. "It's just about what group is going to do it."
Randy Settler pushes his 16-foot aluminum boat off the tribal dock at Stanley Rock, slowly maneuvers around a basalt cliff and passes under a band of thick black power lines that stretch across the river.
He fishes just east of Hood River above Bonneville Dam, the first dam the fish encounter and the milepost that marks the start of the tribal fishery.
Treaty rights and tribal agreements with federal agencies, reinforced through decades of lawsuits, allow tribal fishermen to keep their gill nets in the water overnight, to keep wild fish and to catch just over 10-percent of the wild run.
Still, the tribes are worried. Below the dam, sportfishermen land fish by the thousands - nearly 16,000 spring chinook at last count.
But despite the predicted big run, the spring chinook are late to Bonneville - colder water and lower flows than normal are making the fish sluggish, scientists figure. By mid-April, tribal fishermen caught just 650 fish.
Settler, 53, is a member of the Yakama Nation and a commercial fisherman from Carson, Wash. But his role on this day is head fisherman for the Toppenish Longhouse. He hopes to catch 20 fish, enough for the longhouse's first foods celebration, which will include spring chinook, followed by deer, elk, native roots, huckleberries and chokecherries.
He caught his first fish in 1958, a steelhead, on eight feet of line, his bamboo pole parked in an old buckboard wagon stuck in the middle of Toppenish Creek. He was only 3, but he remembers his brothers and sisters and all the other kids gathered round.
The spring salmon are "a signal that a new cycle has begun," Settler says. "All the songs and the ceremonies are real prayers for the salmon to return, that whatever the salmon has to endure, that he can come back.
"I guess you'd call it a barometer of our belief."
As Settler rounds Stanley Rock and approaches his most promising net, the news looks bad. The net's corks bob freely in the water, the sign of a meager catch.
One end of the net is tethered on shore, the other anchored in deep water. Settler and his nephew, Mackie Jackson, move along the net line, checking for fish.
Finally, near the end, two 27-inch spring chinook appear. Settler puts them in a bathtub-sized cooler in the back of the boat. They're bright silver on the bottom, charcoal gray on top, muscular, thicker than steelhead, speckled with black spots. With the cooler lid off, they sparkle in the sun.
It turns out to be Settler's best catch. After four days of round-the-clock fishing, he catches three salmon total for 250 tribal members at the longhouse ceremony.
In government-speak, 13 "evolutionarily significant units" of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River system are in danger of extinction, a group that includes Snake River and upper Columbia spring chinook.
In the lower Columbia, below Bonneville, wild spring-run populations are no longer "naturally self-sustaining," the National Marine Fisheries Service says. In the upper Willamette, the agency says, wild spring chinook "are likely extirpated, or nearly so," though hatchery numbers still drive fishable returns.
When Settler was 2, Celilo Falls, where his father and grandfather fished with dip nets, was flooded by construction of The Dalles Dam. The mammoth John Day Dam and the four lower Snake River dams followed.
But it's not just the dams. Irrigation allowed more farming, sending pesticides and fertilizer to the river. Nonnative fish thrived, including pikeminnow, walleye and bass. More people came, increasing sewage and industrial runoff.
As a kid, Settler says, he used to drink the water. He doesn't anymore.
When it comes to fishing controversies, the sportfishermen point at the non-Indian gill-netters. The tribes worry more about the sportfishermen.
Fishery managers allow the high-volume sportfishery to land thousands of fish before there's a good handle on the spring chinook run, tribal leaders say. The SAFE for Salmon proposal, the bill in Salem to restrict gill-netters, would let sportfishermen take more fish.
Settler doesn't want to talk politics while ceremonial fishing. By long tradition, his focus is solely on catching salmon.
"I would only hope that we're aware of just how amazing the life history of a salmon is," Settler says. "There's more pressure put on the salmon's life than there's ever been."
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