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.
Fish traps are nets stretched horizontally across a line of pilings from a river’s shore toward its center. Fish hit the nets and are funneled into a submerged circular mesh trap. There, they swim together until fishermen lift the net, forcing the fish to swim into a small trap the size of a refrigerator lying on its side. Fishermen can pull out the fish they want to keep, and open a door to let the rest swim away.
For Peterson, the cause is personal.
At the Wahkiakum County District Courthouse, Peterson digs through a box filled with blueprints for Columbia River fish trap permits. He finds one filed by his grandfather, John C. Peterson, in 1915. Hand-drawn on thick, waxy paper, it details one of five traps John Peterson operated on the Cathlamet Channel of the Columbia River in the early 1900s.
John’s son Ben was born in 1914. Ben dropped out of school to work his father’s fish traps. In exchange for a decade of work, his father promised to give him one of the family traps when he turned 21. In 1934, when Ben was 20, the traps were banned.
“He put all that in and when it came his turn they outlawed them,” Blair Peterson said. “Dad never said the word fish traps aloud. I never even saw one until I worked overseas. He was bitter until the day he died. Maybe that’s why I’m so fired up about all this.”
Despite his father’s bitterness, Blair Peterson followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. He worked as a commercial fisherman in Oregon and Alaska until it became impossible to earn a living.
“Let me tell you, when you’re behind on your mortgage and the credit cards are maxed out and your kid is hungry, you’re going to make some decisions,” Peterson said.
After that, he got a job with the Military Sealift Command, a branch of the Navy that makes sure ships have adequate supplies. Sailing around the world, he noticed fish traps are common. At first, he didn’t know what they were. But they were ubiquitous, so he started asking for demonstrations whenever he could.
Convinced, he became an evangelist for their reintroduction on the Columbia River.
Determined to prove traps could revive fishing on the Columbia, Peterson took the operation on solo after retiring in 2001. The first year, he says he scavenged used fishing nets from dumpsters. He says he was ridiculed and shunned by fellow locals who would ask about “that damn trap.” But he persisted until 2013, when the Wild Fish Conservancy agreed to study the viability of using the traps as on the Columbia.
“I’ve watched fish traps operate in the Persian Gulf, the Congo, the Nile, the Baltic Sea and the Suez Canal,” Peterson said. “Everywhere in the world has them except here. What I wanted was Oregon and Washington to have a tool so that we could harvest the hatchery fish and leave the wild and endangered fish alone. That was my whole idea for the last 16 years.”
Adrian Tuohy, a biologist with the Wild Fish Conservancy, operated a fish trap this year on the Cathlamet Channel. Tuohy says the project could be a boon for both wild fish and local fishermen.
“We have hatchery fish in the river that need to be caught,” Tuohy said. “They are supposed to be caught – that’s their purpose. And we can do that while making sure we let wild fish go.”
Tuohy and two other young scientists lived near the trap for three weeks in September, trying to prove the efficacy of a formerly dangerous strategy. The team tagged and released all the fish they caught, part of a study they hope will show that pound nets are as good for threatened fish as they were for the fishermen of the early 1900s.
“We want to prove the hypothesis that survival rates are near complete,” Tuohy said.
If they are right, commercial fishermen could become instrumental in saving wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River. They would thin out competition from hatchery fish when the salmon face the toughest phase of their lives: struggling upriver to return to their spawning grounds, their dying bodies propelled by instinct and sheer force of will.
On a warm September morning, Tuohy offered a demonstration. Together, the three men heaved the rope that lifted the net into the air. The net rose, and with it, a dozen big salmon struggled just under the water’s surface. For a brief moment, the fish splashed in the net, their strong bodies shining in the sun. Then they crested over a bar and into the deep water of the rectangular trap, where they would be sorted.
If this was a commercial operation, the hatchery fish would be pulled from the water, drained of blood and packed in ice. Wild fish would wait in the trap, before being allowed to escape through a lifted door into the waters of the open river. The wild fish would continue upstream, having never been handled by humans or struggled for breath outside the water.
Tuohy’s crew started fishing on Aug. 28. Within the first half hour, they had trapped 70 Chinook, Coho and steelhead. By the end of the day, they had caught over 200 fish – a number Tuohy estimates would roughly triple the average daily catch of a commercial fisherman using a gillnet.
Ten days later, the first wild Chinook tagged by the team passed McDary Dam, 292 miles and four dams upriver from the trap.
“When that first fish passed the dam, we had a little party,” Aaron Rodgers said.
The idea has resonated with environmentalists.
Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society, said the method helps wild fish by helping fishermen.
“We need another mechanism to deliver benefits to fish,” Sherwood said. “One of those could be market forces. This would be a great product, with a legitimate conservation message.”
And the traps provide additional scientific benefits by allowing safe observation of fish, according to Conrad Gowell, river steward for the Native Fish Society.
“Traps can also function as a monitoring tool and allow fisheries to stay open longer and remove more hatchery salmon from the spawning grounds while putting fishermen back to work,” Gowell told the Fish and Wildlife Commission last month.
But not everyone is so sure.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Bruce Buckmaster represents the northwest corner of the state – home to Astoria and many of the commercial fishermen who work the Columbia River. Buckmaster said the question isn’t whether the fish traps work. It’s whether they will work for the complicated politics of salmon fishing in the Columbia River.
Buckmaster railed against a joint agreement between Oregon and Washington state to prioritize recreational salmon fishing over commercial fishing in the Columbia. He worried that any extra allowance to catch more hatchery fish would pass commercial fishermen and instead become a windfall for recreational fisheries. And he was concerned that the traps would work too well, making it impossible to fairly divide the commercial catch between the few hundred families who still depend on it.
“I don’t have any problems with the technical issues at all because you’re reinventing the wheel,” Buckmaster said. “And it’s a good wheel. History shows that. But I think we’re a long way from a solution, even if it works perfectly.”
Jim Wells, a retired lifelong commercial fisherman and president of Salmon for All, agrees. Wells said politics makes switching the Columbia River’s small-scale commercial fishing fleet over to fish traps impossible.
“It’s a pipe dream,” Wells said. “There’s no way. They’re not going to let you do it because of the sport fishing priority.”
As usual, Wells said, rural Oregonians get the empty half of the glass.
“If this worked, and there really was zero mortality of wild fish, then obviously you could run the commercial fishery more on all those hatchery fish,” Wells said. “But you’re going to be cutting into that sports priority. It’s urban versus rural. And the urban script will win, because the majority of the population is in the Willamette Valley, and that’s who the politicians have to please. None of us have any faith that even if it did work out they’d allow us an allocation. And it’s so expensive to do it and set it all up.”
Buckmaster echoed the worry about the cost of setting up the traps, which mostly consists of driving a couple of dozen pilings into the water.
“If everybody with a gillnet boat could have one of these, if they could all trade up and make more money for their families, I’d say great, let’s do it,” Buckmaster said. “But this isn’t an answer to our problems yet. It’s only a possibility.”
Touhy acknowledged that politics and economics make changing the way things are done in the Columbia River a challenge. But he said there may not be another choice.
“This could really be a tough sell initially, but what’s the other option?” Touhy asked. “Declining numbers of wild fish will completely shut down the fishery to nothing at some point and fishing is something that needs to continue.”
Sherwood, an avid fishermen and environmentalist, said the project could result in the ultimate fish story.
“For previous generations, the trophy was all about catching the most fish or catching the biggest fish,” Sherwood said. “For us, it’s leaving the populations in better shape than we found them. A lot of fishermen my age say that would be the best trophy they could ever have.”
In that sentiment, all parties are perfectly aligned.