Future of State's Salmon Strong
by Bill Monroe
T he boom days for Oregon salmon fishing will continue, says the man at or near the helm of its resurrection over the past decade.
"Sport fishermen should enjoy these runs for several years. I don't think we'll ever go as low as we did in the early 1990s," said Steve King, who retired Friday after 31 years in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As state salmon harvest manager and Columbia River program leader, King, 55, was a stalwart rudder for the salmon ship of state. An uncompromising pragmatist when it comes to the reality of science, King kept the resource on an even keel as he juggled other biologists, a sometimes wary and hostile angling community, growing tribal and court influences, and an amoebic political spectrum of legislators and fish and wildlife commissioners.
But although he successfully helped guide Northwest salmon runs through their lowest ebb in recorded history to the Columbia River's highest returns since the river's hydrosystem was built, King won't take the credit.
"We've made lots of changes, learned a lot and reshaped the landscape," he said, "but it's really the ocean that makes the most difference. We can give them better places to come home to, but everything is at the mercy of those ocean cycles."
King was born into a logging family in Shelton, Wash., but spent much of his youth in Grants Pass and Portland, graduating from Oregon State University and starting with the former Oregon State Game Commission as a fish checker on the Columbia River in 1973.
The dams hit the fan about 1975, when King came into the department's Clackamas office to join the Columbia River program.
John Day Dam had closed off more than 50 miles of the river's flow in 1968, King said, along with even more controversial dams on the lower Snake River through the early '70s.
"Salmon runs unexpectedly crashed in 1974 and it was pretty apparent hydropower was the cause," he said. "Then the ocean went sour in 1977 and entered a down cycle as it does every 20 to 30 years."
Columbia and coastal salmon and steelhead runs hit lows by 1992, and listings under the Endangered Species Act enveloped "nearly everything" by the end of the millennium, King said.
Meanwhile, he had been promoted in 1986 to work with the treaty tribal fishery, put in charge of Oregon's Columbia River programs in 1988 and then assumed statewide salmon harvest management in 1994.
"The Endangered Species Act was a good thing in that it brought about all sorts of things that helped rebuild the runs," King said. "But there's sure a lot of paperwork involved."
Slowly but surely the hydrosystem is being modified to help salmon, with bypass systems, screening and other technical changes, he said. "Even pikeminnow control is helping."
And, when the ocean abruptly turned around in its current fertile cycle, salmon and steelhead had a reprieve in salt and freshwater, where a complicated array of regulations for sport and commercial fishing now control fishing, species by species, and in several cases, basin by basin.
The 3.1 million fish returned into the Columbia system in 2001 was higher than anyone thought possible.
"But it was the current ocean condition that's the biggest advantage," King said.
Although management schemes are largely under control, King said his biggest disappointment continues to be criticism and lack of understanding of the importance of everyone remaining involved in the lower Columbia's fisheries -- including gill-netters.
"The criticism has been there for 30 years, and I suppose it always will be," he said. "Most of it is unfounded, and it doesn't produce anything. There's an important place for commercial fishing on the Columbia River. About 300 permit holders now are true professionals just as concerned about the resource as anyone else. It's a well-managed fishery that's making major changes, too. They get a share of the wealth in spring chinook and sturgeon, but the majority of the fish will always go to sport fishing."
King said he recalls well the 1994 case of a chef in a Chicago restaurant serving spring chinook who personally got an Illinois congressman to intervene on behalf of the Columbia fishery and help it through one of many tight budget periods.
"These fish are a public resource. They do not just belong to sport fishermen in Oregon and Washington," King said. "Management is not a question of economic value (to the region). People in restaurants in New York and Chicago own these fish through federal tax dollars just as much as Oregonians."
Conversely, King has been at or near the helm to watch the emerging triumph of Native American fisheries on the Columbia.
"When Celilo flooded in 1957, the tribe lost a fishing site of millenniums," he said. "They had no place to go."
By the 1990s, though, with the help of courts and the foresight of tribal leaders to hire competent staffs of fish biologists, treaty tribes established a power on the river that's often trumped short-sighted politicians, usually to the benefit also of sport anglers.
"I've been real pleased that scene came about," King said. "Treaty Indians have good biologists and manage their fisheries very well."
King, who almost single-handedly kept the Willamette River open to limited fishing in the tough years of 1996 and 1997, when runs plunged to 30,000, said hatcheries are necessary to both keep anglers and commercial fishermen in the picture and continue to rebuild wild runs.
"It's the system we've built to satisfy everyone's needs as much as possible," he said. "It's absolutely critical to have those fish available."
He added that Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his staff recognize that and are staying as clear from politics as possible in allowing biologists to manage fisheries.
The public also is in the game, King said.
"If you're fair and if you can listen good and give them the right answers, they respond very intelligently," he said. For his part, King said some health issues and family situations will keep him from taking an active role in retirement, although he'll help out from time to time with several key issues.
One of his staff veterans is an heir apparent, but a permanent replacement hasn't been selected.
"There are good people managing fisheries. It's mostly going to be recipe management now from the plans we built," he said. "I'll fade about as fast as the ripples when you throw a rock in the lake."
Perhaps, but remember to thank the gray-bearded Steve King if you spot either of his ancient fiberglass open boats -- a 30-year-old, 17-foot green and white tri-hull at Coon Island in the Multnomah Channel every spring or a 40-year-old tan 16-footer on Tillamook or Nehalem bays each fall. He'll be sitting in a lawn chair running the trolling motor from beneath heavy raingear.
"When you're fishing for chinook you're hunting fish," he said. "You don't need amenities."
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