Some commercial salmon fishermen will survive the next few years. Many more will not.
By Abraham Hyatt
Start with a basic fact: Oregon’s coastal commercial salmon industry is not dead, nor will it — probably — ever be.
But define “industry.” What if in the future every season is measured in days, not weeks or months? What if the number of commercial fishing boats drops below 100? Could it be called a “salmon industry” if fishermen spend most of their time working other fisheries and only a fraction of their time catching salmon?
These aren’t hypothetical questions. The 2008 coastal commercial season is shaping up to be the third terrible year in a row. That’s not necessarily news: Low salmon runs several years in a row aren’t unusual; 1983 was as bad as 2007 and 1994 was far worse.
But the 2007 fall run of Chinook on the Sacramento River in California — which is where 60% to 80% of Oregon’s salmon come from — was the second-smallest ever recorded. In mid March, early season ocean fishing for Chinook was canceled. Fish managers have also proposed canceling the entire West Coast salmon season; the final decision will be made in mid April.
What’s even more alarming is the low number of 2-year-old Chinook that returned to the Sacramento. Those 2-year-olds, or jacks, are how scientists predict future spawning trends. In the last four years the average number of returning jacks has been 35,000. Last fall it was a record-shattering low of 2,000.
If the future holds fewer and fewer salmon, the effect on the commercial fleet is clear: Bigger boats, which can travel farther offshore and have permits to catch more than salmon — crab or tuna for instance — will have enough work, say some salmon fishermen. But smaller boats, or those that don’t have permits for other fisheries, won’t be able pay for maintenance, loan payments or gear.
And so the fleet will shrink year by year. The salmon will come back; up until this point they always have. Eric Schindler, supervising biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, predicts the dry spell may last two to four years. But how many boats will there when the salmon return?
Mark Newell is a commercial fisherman out of Newport and sits on the Oregon Salmon Commission. “Things look pretty grim for the salmon fleet for the next couple of years,” he says. “I wish I could paint a good picture, but I can’t.”
TRYING TO PREDICT HOW SALMON in the Pacific Northwest will run is not unique to this decade, nor to the last century. In 1880 two naturalists, David Jordan and Chas Gilbert, traveled through Oregon studying the salmon stocks for the federal government.
In an article in the March 1881 issue of The American Naturalist, the men identified some obvious things that were impacting the population. They wrote about how mining on the Sacramento River was destroying spawning grounds for the Chinook, and about the threat of over-fishing along the Columbia River, where canners packed 26 million pounds of salmon in 1880.
And they also did some guessing as to how river flow, high water temperatures and the ocean influenced runs. Over the next 127 years science has discovered the answers to some of those questions. One lesson came in September 2002 on the Klamath River, when — in a highly controversial move — the federal government diverted a large amount of river water to farmers suffering from a drought. At least 34,000 salmon returning to the river died from a disease caused by the low volume and high water temperatures in the river. None were able to spawn.
The reverberations from that year made predicting salmon runs along the coast more difficult. And it required a juggling act with other stock. Oregon fishermen were limited in what they were allowed to catch since they could potentially catch some of the recovering Klamath River stock along with Sacramento River stock.
Since then, biologists’ crystal balls have been just as clouded. It’s not for a lack of data from coastal rivers where poor management has long been blamed for fish deaths. This year is particularly puzzling. Biologists know adult salmon are dying at a high rate, but they don’t know why or where.
“There’s something new happening so that we’re not on the mark,” he says. “We’re scratching our heads. It’s likely something we will never know.”
That “something” is taking place somewhere out in the ocean, a place Schindler refers to as the wild card in making predictions. Maybe global warming is raising the water temperature and killing fish. Maybe they can’t find food. The answer may never be found.
“WE’VE HAD A DISASTER BEFORE. The trouble is a lot of guys don’t have many options. If we have a another poor year, next year doesn’t look so good for them,” Newell says.
Newell is talking about owners of boats in the 30- to 45-foot range, which he and other fishermen say make up almost 50% of the salmon fleet. This keeps them from going further out or in harsher weather.
Kevin Bastien, who sits on the Oregon Salmon Commission and has been a commercial fisherman since 1974, owns a 40-foot trawler. “Every year is a new challenge,” he says. “But this year is a new, new challenge.”
Bastien is close to retiring from fishing. Three years ago he sold his crab permit for $70,000; last month he started doing some part-time work with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says he’s been through two other bad times in his career and the way he survived was by finding new ways to branch out, such as crabbing, even with a small boat that couldn’t go out as often.
In other words, like any other small business, success and survival lie in the ability to diversify. For many vessel owners, says Onno Husing, executive director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, it boils down to a case-by-case basis. Is their vessel paid off? What are the monthly maintenance costs? What other bills need to be paid? Is there a mortgage payment on a home? How much is salmon going for?
Newell was in Newport earlier this year when the answers to those questions came up short for one particular boat. Its moorage fees were in arrears; it hadn’t been maintained and was falling apart. Workers from the port had the boat out of the water and were tearing it apart.
“No one wants to buy a wood trawler. You take it out and crush it and take it to the dump,” Newell says. “We going to see quite a few more boats just go away.”
NO ONE THINKS THE INDUSTRY as a whole will simply vaporize in the coming years. Bastien hopes his grandson will find work as a commercial fisherman as a way to make good money through college; other fishermen say there are too many of them that have it in their blood to ever completely stop.
But the survival of the fleet may be representative of more than keeping one of Oregon’s oldest industries alive. The commercial salmon fisherman may be a sort of canary in the coal mine — an indicator of how the West Coast is managing its water when it comes to urbanization, agriculture and environmental restoration.
“If we are smart as a society we will consider this a wake-up call for a lot of us. If we don’t wrap our minds around water management in the West, we have huge problems coming,” says Husing.
“If these folks are the first guys who get pushed off the cliff, the fundamental question is, who is next?”
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