DISMAL NITCH, Wash. (CN) – Standing at a beach on the mouth of the Columbia River, Blair Peterson pointed out a few dozen century-old wood pilings where his grandfather’s fish trap once snared everything in its path. Peterson’s grandfather wasn’t alone. Abandoned pilings dot the water for almost the entire four miles to Astoria on the other side of the river, as crowded in some places as the pixels in a photograph. The traps were banned in 1934 for decimating salmon populations. Today, Peterson says, they could save threatened wild fish, and bolster the area’s dying commercial fisheries.
“This town was based on a sustainable fishing industry,” Peterson says. “And right now, we do not have one. This river is a dying patient when it comes to salmon. But I don’t want these boats to go away. I don’t want the fishing to go away. I don’t want any of it to go away. So far, it’s been in vain. But the river hasn’t changed. It’s still here. And there is a sustainable fishery here, if we can do it right.”
In 2017, just 517 native steelhead made their way from the ocean, up the Columbia River and back to Willamette Falls, according to data from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife – the worst year on record. For the first time ever, steelhead fishing was closed completely on the Columbia River in September. Warming oceans and flooding rivers meant 2017 numbers dipped below average for returning wild Chinook and Coho salmon.
Shaun Clements, the agency’s senior fish policy advisor, described the dire salmon situation at a commission meeting in September.
“The numbers from 2017 are not good,” Clements said. “I don’t want to say abysmal, but something in that range. We’ve taken a number of management actions over the years; they haven’t worked.”
The fate of wild salmon is intertwined with the future of small scale commercial fishing. The commercial catch is limited by the number of threatened wild fish accidentally killed when fishermen are trying to catch hatchery fish and non-threatened wild fish. Because of this, commercial fishermen do everything they can to avoid harming wild salmon. This year’s low numbers meant commercial fishermen were allowed only seven days to fish the Columbia this fall.
The standard commercial fishing method used to catch salmon in the Columbia River basin is a controversial one. Gillnets trap fish when they swim though holes in the net sized to snag their gills and prevent them from backing out. Environmentalists say the method harms far too many threatened fish. The practice was supposed to be phased out this year, but the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife backed out of that plan.
But there are plenty of hatchery-raised salmon in the Columbia. Guided by a plan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 62 hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin release over 63 million fish every year. Those fish need to be caught. Hatchery fish gobble up the same prey as wild fish and crowd the shady resting spots and breeding grounds wild fish seek. They can also alter the ancient genetics of wild salmon and steelhead.
That’s where fish traps come in. Peterson hopes the traps could make it possible for commercial fishermen to catch a lot more hatchery fish, while increasing survival of threatened wild fish to virtually 100 percent.