Big salmon in gill nets revive past


The Oregonian

CASCADE LOCKS -- The two men moved in unison in the open boat, firm hands pulling in a 400-foot-wide net. Their haul yields one silvery mass, than another, then two more bulky salmon returning fat from years at sea.

This week, for the first time in 38 years, tribal fishermen are being allowed to set gill nets in the Columbia River during the summer run of chinook salmon.

Above average returns to the river three years in a row convinced managers to allow the intensive fishery for three days, fueling hopes for a sustained revival of a way of life that has become nearly as endangered as the depleted stocks of fish.

"It's real important," said Rex Zack, a member of the Yakama Nation from Toppenish, Wash. "We need these fish to survive."

Gill nets had been barred from the run for their enormous effectiveness. Anchored by buoys and allowed to stay in the river overnight, they collect any migrating salmon that noses into the net, snagging it by the gills.

The year-to-date total of summer chinook counted at Bonneville Dam hit 99,424 on Monday, and the figure is expected to reach 120,000, making it the second-largest run since 1960. Authorities haven't allowed summer gill-netting for chinook since 1965.

Declaring the summer run restored is premature, fish managers and tribal members agree.

The summer run was once the prime catch in the Columbia, then the world's premier producer of chinook. Fishermen in 1880 landed 2 million summer chinook, or "June hogs," a nickname reflecting their massive size, averaging more than 50 pounds. The catch never again reached such heights.

Overfishing took a toll, along with destruction of habitats by logging and agriculture. In 1941, completion of the Grand Coulee Dam abruptly put an end to spawning in the upper reaches of the Columbia that had produced most of the legendary June hogs. And during the 1990s, the summer chinook runs dropped to around 15,000 fish, and the Snake River stock qualified as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Working the nets Early Tuesday on the river, Zack worked nets with a teenage nephew, Wilson Lamere. By 9 a.m., they'd collected more than a dozen salmon, many in the range of 25 to 30 pounds.

Zack took up fishing about 12 years ago, he said, hoping to reclaim a treaty right and to preserve old ways he knew mostly from the stories of uncles, who used long-handled dip nets to scoop salmon from atop platforms built out over Celilo Falls. The falls were submerged in 1957 beneath the pool formed by the Dalles Dam.

Tribal fishermen have the right to harvest 5 percent of the summer chinook entering the Columbia River, or about 6,000 fish based on the current forecast. Before, tribal members using dip nets and angling gear have legally caught a few hundred summer chinook, averaging about 1.4 percent of the run.

Gill-netting is likely to increase the catch by several thousand. The gill-netters often string their nets from floating buoys that are anchored in place, leave them overnight, and gather the catch in early morning.

Managers timed the fishery to coincide with the run of fish largely destined for the upper Columbia, rather than the threatened Snake River stock. State and tribal fish managers limited gill-netting to three days, ending at 6 p.m. today, to avoid overfishing. But tribal officials are talking about the potential to step up the effort.

Planning ahead "If we're going to continue to have runs of this size, then we'd like to figure out how to make the best use of those fish," said Stuart Ellis, fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The agency represents four tribes with treaty rights to fish in the Columbia River Basin.

That "if" looms large in the debate over salmon. An abrupt shift in an ocean climate cycle probably accounts for most of the gains in salmon numbers, according to fish biologists and ecologists. After 20 years of poor conditions, the cycle appears to have flipped to a more productive phase in 1998, boosting salmon survival at sea by supporting a more abundant food supply.

How salmon stocks will fair in the next down cycle remains to be seen.

"We're hopeful that we as a society can do enough to ensure that we get some level of recovery," Ellis said. "There are still a lot of problems."

Tuesday at the dock near Cascade Locks, Clifford Shippentower made the best of this year's unusual opportunity.

"I'll probably make a couple grand, " Shippentower said. "A couple grand is good." Moments later he answered his cell phone, which he kept zipped in a sandwich bag.

"I'd get up here as early as you can," he urged. "They're going fast."

Sold out by 10 a.m. He and a cousin, Nathan Dick, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, sold their entire morning catch before 10 a.m., fetching $3 a pound, gutted weight, for chinook. Many fish are sold "in the round," however, or whole and ungutted, for about $2.50 a pound.

For Shippentower and other tribal gill-netters, the chance to sell fresh chinook salmon won't come again until the fall run. Most work other jobs to make a living. Shippentower and his wife cure and smoke salmon to sell in the off-season, and they use a Web site to reach far-away customers.

But he worries about a lack of interest in fishing among younger tribal members and what it could mean for the future. Two years ago, he went looking for someone from one of the treaty tribes to operate his second fishing boat, "somebody looking to exercise their treaty rights." He got no calls.

"My daughter and son grew up around scaffolding," he said. "But they all got jobs now. I can't even get them to go down and fish anymore." Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073;


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