Cash Flowby Rich Landers - Outdoors editor
Spokesman Review, October 21, 2001
Return of salmon, steelhead pumps big bucks into ailing economy
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates lost a few billion in net worth this year, and Boeing has announced plans to lay off up to 30,000 workers. But while these upstarts are struggling, businesses linked to the original pillar of Pacific Northwest livelihood are bucking the grim economic trends.
Salmon and steelhead are returning in record numbers to the Columbia River this year, the product of high runoff years in the late-90s that ushered smolts downstream through the gauntlet of dams to perfect ocean conditions.
Anglers have risen to the occasion.
The economy is cashing in.
The 391,000 adult spring chinook crossing Bonneville Dam was the largest return since the dam was built in 1938, and the number doesn't include the thousands of salmon that anglers caught below the dam in the lower Columbia's first spring chinook fishery since 1977.
Angler counts indicated that the six-week spring fishery below Bonneville Dam attracted 179,000 angler trips. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey shows that each angler trip is worth more than $103 to the local economy. That spells a six-week infusion of about $18 million to the small bergs along the big river.
And the run continued to spread the wealth all the way upstream and into Idaho for nearly two months after the lower Columbia season closed.
"It was like locusts descending on a crop," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industries Association in Portland. "The joke was that you couldn't buy a bag of chips down at Bonneville. Gear was coming down from Seattle, Portland, Yakima and Spokane to help keep store shelves stocked. They didn't even waste time stocking shelves with tackle. They just opened the boxes."
Oregon reports a 14 percent increase in salmon tag sales over last year, but officials estimate the effort among anglers is up significantly higher because of the improved chances of catching a fish.
Dan Grogan, owner of Fisherman's Marine and Outdoor stores based in Oregon City, said he's having the best year he's had in 26 years of business.
"A good year like this makes a difference in whether I employ 105 people or 85," he said last month. "There's probably $100 million worth of boats at the mouth of the Columbia River right now."
A similar fishing frenzy descended upon the record run of coho salmon heading to the mouth of the Columbia in August and September as well as the good run of fall chinook salmon that's been steaming up to the Hanford Reach of the Columbia and the record run of summer steelhead that's pouring into the Snake River and its tributaries this fall.
Businesses are buoyed for two good reasons:
"These runs reconnected thousands of people with their fish," said Hamilton. "Spring chinook are very prized. They come early in the year. They fight hard. They're delicious.
"Realistically, spring chinook have a cultural status almost comparable to that of the tribes," she added. "Not in the religious sense but certainly in the sense of awe and respect and desire."
Hamilton is looking back and looking ahead as the fish continue to be caught and the cash continues to flow.
"These are the good old days," she said. "This shows us what salmon can do when they're given what they need, and that's healthy river systems."
Like most people with an economic stake in the fish runs, Hamilton is aware that leaner years are sure to come.
"These phenomenal numbers show us that we have to keep mass-marking fish at hatcheries and by doing that, we can give tremendous economic benefit to communities while protecting wild runs," she said.
Some Native American tribes have balked at marking hatchery fish. The tribes tend to favor a controversial approach of letting hatchery-raised steelhead repopulate drainages where wild salmon have been lost.
Sportfishing seasons can be more liberal when hatchery fish are marked so anglers can distinguish them to prevent killing endangered wild fish.
Meanwhile, Luhr-Jensen tackle company based in Hood River, Ore., analyzed the forecasts and prepared for this year's big fish runs and the whopping 25 percent increase in tackle sales in its Pacific Northwest region.
"We were ready for increased tackle sales," said spokesman Roger Neufeldt. "What caught us a little by surprise was the rush on our smoker line. Sales usually don't pick up until October and November. This year our entire inventory was sold out by September."
Hamilton is nervous when she sees some people misinterpreting this year's great runs as sign of salmon recovery.
"These fish came downstream as babies in favorable high flows," she said. "Historically we have high smolt to adult survival when we get back to a river with somewhat normal flows. Mother Nature did it, not us. Then they went into good ocean conditions, two things that don't combine very often.
"But the fishery certainly would be more stable if we could provide better spring flows."
While the record salmon runs will likely escalate the debate over dam management, the value of the fish also will revive the resource competition between sportfishers and commercial fishers.
"We closed down the sport fishery in order to conduct a commercial fishery, " Hamilton said. "We have to stop and ask, `Do you really want to shut down that enormous economic benefit for the limited benefits of commercial fishing?"'
Commercial fishing might not be necessary, she said.
The tribes, which have a treaty right to half of the fish runs, are beginning to market their fish, Hamilton said, and commercial fish farms are meeting the needs of most consumer outlets.
Sportfishing does a better job of conserving wild fish while reaping the most economic benefit from the fishery, she contends.
Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said commercial fishing could flourish economically under a revival of spring chinook returns.
"If commercial anglers can develop techniques that spare endangered wild fish from death in their nets, "they could make a heck of an economic argument," Tweit said.
"A lot of people sportfish, but lot more don't. The ability to provide really good seafood is a big attraction. Spring chinook could rival Copper River salmon."
Commercial anglers were getting up to $4 a pound for a short time early in the season, making each fish worth $60-$80.
Roughly 150 commercial anglers caught 5,700 spring chinook in this year's main fishery.
Hamilton argues that the fish are worth about $400 apiece to the economy if caught by sport anglers.
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.
With lean years of fish returns clearly in the future, Hamilton doubts that spring chinook could be a regular enough attraction to generate a restaurant marketing spectacle similar to Copper River salmon from Alaska.
"Managing for sportfishing is a surer bet for the local economy," she said.
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