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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Town Without Fish

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord, an Alaska fisherperson, visits Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, once a thriving fishing community with 22 salmon and tuna canneries lining the waterfront. The only remnants of this way of life she finds today are in a museum.


CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord fishes the waters off Homer, Alaska. Recently, she journeyed to the Pacific Northwest to visit what she thought was another fishing community, but what she found startled her.

LORD: Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, was once called "the future New York of the Pacific." In my mind I pictured the place where the ocean and great river met as a bustling waterfront. I envisioned it full of boats and birds and the lives of men and women who were fed in every way by what they gathered from the water.
Indeed, the Astoria waterfront was once lined with 22 salmon and tuna canneries. A fleet of 2,600 gill netters sailed the lower river, chasing salmon that numbered in the millions. But a lot has happened in the last hundred years. The salmon, once thought to be inexhaustible, proved not to be. I knew that the much-dammed Columbia was now a sad excuse for a salmon river. I knew that the offshore fisheries were also suffering from over- fishing, habitat destruction, and climate change. But I did not imagine how much had been lost. What I saw when I visited Astoria was an empty gray river and an emptying, down at the heels community. Only remnants remain of the town's seafaring and fishing industry. Stands of old wooden pilings along the shore. A high school basketball team called The Fighting Fishermen. Sagging Victorian homes turned to B&Bs. In the classified section of the local newspaper, I found a single ad in the commercial fishing category, for a used generator. Next to it was a half-page of listings for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The centerpiece of Astoria today, down on the waterfront, is its Columbia River Maritime Museum. I spent a morning there, among the displays of wooden fishing boats, nets, and canning equipment. Mostly I studied the old photographs and the faces of people in them. Families with arms full of salmon. Men mending nets. The people in the photos looked vibrant, pleased with themselves and their work. They looked -- well, they looked like people I know, like myself and my friends who fish for a living in Alaska. It felt very strange, very unsettling, to be looking at my life and all its parts -- boats, nets, buoys, hip boots, fishing shirts cut off at the elbows -- all of it in a museum.
It was as though that way of life no longer existed in fact. What I saw of Astoria's past and present scared me. I hoped I wasn't seeing, in today's Astoria, the future of my own community.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord's latest book is called Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast. She comes to us from station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.



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