Commercial Fishery has Too Much of
by Joe Rojas-Burke
Out of the rippling green murk of the lower Columbia River, Brian Tarabochia winches in his catch: a single chinook salmon that would fetch around $150 -- if state regulators allowed him to keep it.
Tarabochia, a fourth-generation fisherman, grasps the 25-pound "springer" by the tail, cradles its twisting bulk in one arm and quickly dunks the fish into a steel and fiberglass tank. Pumped river water gushes through and across the fish's gills to revive it.
Jeff Whisler, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, stands by, jotting notes on the fish's encounter with Tarabochia's net, hung with the finer mesh regulators required this year to limit damage to gills and scales.
"That's exactly what we want to see," Whistler says, pointing to dark lines left by the net near the fish's snout, well away from its gills. But after a minute, he lifts a panel to send the salmon back to the river.
Despite the recovery boxes, the use of less-lethal nets, and all the elaborate measures to limit harm to endangered salmon, the spring chinook season is shaping up as a total bust for commercial fishers. Fish and Wildlife managers halted the fishery after just two days in late February. And the possibility of any further fishing has been greatly curtailed by an unexpected twist of nature.
Upriver salmon runs, including a significant number of federally protected stocks, returned from their ocean wanderings far earlier than wildlife managers expected. These fish have greatly outnumbered the Willamette River hatchery salmon that are the target of the commercial fishery. The share of upriver fish among those caught exceeded 80 percent by the second day of fishing, leading regulators to halt the fishery. The commercial fleet of about 150 boats came away with just over 500 marketable chinooks.
The experience is a damaging setback for commercial fishers -- and the 2-year-old effort by wildlife managers to revive the spring-run fishery on the Columbia River. Residents along the Columbia who fish for a living say they invested thousands of dollars on the newly required nets and equipment. Commercial fishers now say they are unlikely to catch enough spring salmon to recover the investment.
"You can't win," says Tarabochia, who supports a wife and two children in Astoria. "You can't make this thing work when you have these kind of odds stacked against you." He and a half-dozen other fisherman on Monday carried out test catches for state fishery managers -- without pay or the chance to keep any fish -- hoping results might allow the harvest to continue.
Commercial fishers are particularly outraged by a rule change just weeks before the season opened. Fishery managers increased estimated death rates of wild fish caught in nets. That effectively cut short the amount of fishing the fleet could carry out before reaching the allowed "impact" on threatened species.
Critics, meanwhile, have seized on what happened to raise new questions about commercial fishing conducted in the midst of more than a half-dozen endangered salmon and steelhead runs that enter the Columbia on their return from the ocean to spawning grounds upstream.
"Even with the best intentions and a very complex and detailed management scheme, they are killing a lot of endangered species," says Jason Miner, conservation director for Oregon Trout, a Portland-based nonprofit group with the mission of restoring native wild fish.
Whistler, the state biologist, says it's far too soon to declare the effort a failure.
"To be able to gauge the success of the fishery takes time," he says. "You can't do it in one year, or two years."
On Tuesday, Oregon and Washington officials scheduled more test fishing next Monday. They will determine next Wednesday when and if commercial fishing can resume.
Spring chinook salmon are prized by salmon aficionados and restaurateurs for their flavorful and delicately textured, oil-rich flesh.
Fresh out of the net, the fish sell for about $5 a pound, which is up to 10 times the price of other salmon catches, which have lost market value amid the supply glut created by fish farms. Marty Budnick, a commercial fisherman from Warrenton, said the price a fisher could get at the dock for coho salmon dropped as low as 30 cents a pound last year.
In its heyday, the Columbia River spring chinook run produced about 2 million fish a year. But that was more than a century ago. By 1999, four separate spring chinook runs on the Columbia River were listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, joining three runs of summer steelhead, which start migrating up the Columbia around March.
Commercial harvesting of spring chinook shrank to nearly zero until last year. With huge returns of hatchery and some wild stock in recent years, fish managers in Oregon and Washington last year began testing a way to rebuild the spring chinook fishery by targeting hatchery fish.
Fishing crews agreed to phase out gill nets and begin using less-lethal tangle nets with a smaller-gauge mesh that snags fish by the teeth or jaws. Fish trapped at the gills often suffocate immediately or die later from the damage inflicted to their bodies. And all boats must use the recovery boxes to revive stunned or bleeding wild fish that would otherwise die or make easy prey for sea lions.
After the first run of the "demonstration" fishery, commercial fishers were thrilled with the results. They landed 14,800 spring chinooks last year and sold them at an average price of $5 a pound, bringing in total net revenues of nearly $1 million, according to the Fish and Wildlife Department.
But the demonstration wasn't a complete success. The precautions worked as expected for wild chinook, but not with smaller steelhead. The tangle nets caught many steelhead by their gills, killing about 2 percent of captured fish immediately. Fish and Wildlife managers have estimated that the fishery ultimately killed 2,600 wild steelhead -- including an unknown number of endangered and threatened steelhead.
Alarmed by the steelhead numbers, Oregon Trout, the conservation group, threatened to go to court this year to stop the fishery if it appeared likely to again harm more protected fish than the legal limits allowed. The group praised the decision to halt the fishery.
But commercial fishers feel betrayed. Recognizing the steelhead damage, they agreed to buy new nets again this year with a finer mesh than the new nets regulators required last year. Materials for tangle nets cost about $1,000, and it takes several days of hand labor to tie together.
"What did we get in return? We got axed," Tarabochia said.
Unusual Fish Mix Hampers Columbia Fishery, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 3/7/3 by Barry Espenson
High Encounter Rate Shuts Down Fishery, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 2/21/3 by Barry Espenson
Higher Mortality Prompts Tangle Net Changes, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 2/7/3 by Barry Espenson
Wild Steelhead Protection in Lower Columbia, NW Fishletter, 1/31/3 by Bill Bakke
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