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

Point of No Return, Part III: Salmon Fishing, Part one: On the Water

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick reports on the controversy over salmon fishing in the Northwest. More than two dozen salmon runs are on the Endangered Species List, yet commercial salmon fishing continues. The apparent contradiction has prompted two major efforts to get commercial boats out of the waters of Washington state.


CURWOOD: It seemed simple. If an animal goes on the Endangered Species List, you shouldn't be allowed to kill it. But when it comes to the endangered salmon of the Pacific Northwest, nothing is simple. More than two dozen salmon runs are under federal protection, yet commercial fishing continues. This apparent contradiction has prompted two major efforts to get commercial fishing boats out of the waters of Washington state. As part of our ongoing series, The Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, Living On Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports on the controversy over salmon fishing and its impact on endangered fish.

FITZPATRICK: To understand the debate over fishing for salmon, there's a little something you must first understand about the fish.

(Water flows and gurgles)

FITZPATRICK: Salmon are born in the fresh mountain streams of the Pacific Northwest. They slowly make their way to the ocean, where they grow into adults, and several years later come back to the very stream where they were born to spawn. But these days there is a second type of fish: salmon that are born in government hatcheries. These fish aren't considered wild. They live in captivity for about a year before being released to swim out to sea and back. These days, 80 percent of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest are hatchery fish, and for the most part they're the ones that wind up in the supermarket.

(wind and water, motors, pulleys, creaking net)

FITZPATRICK: It's sunrise on the opening day of salmon season. Frank Fletcher and his son Dave are unspooling green nylon mesh from the stern of their 34-foot gillnetter, the "Rosy C."


FITZPATRICK: The net will create an underwater barrier 80 feet deep and 1,800 feet across.

F. FLETCHER: Fish tend to drive into the gear with their heads. The net passes over their head and gets lodged behind the gill plates. That's it. You have them.

(A boat engine runs)

FITZPATRICK: Frank Fletcher has been gillnetting in Puget Sound for 27 years. With weathered features and a graying beard, he looks the part. He hopes to keep fishing for years to come.

F. FLETCHER: The public perception is there are no healthy stocks of salmon, that all salmon are doomed and the industry that harvests them is doomed. The reality is, there are lots of stocks that are healthy.

FITZPATRICK: Several types of wild salmon are now on the Endangered Species List. But Frank Fletcher isn't looking for wild fish. He's after a healthy hatchery run that was bred specifically so fishermen will have something to catch. In a sense, salmon fishing is now a bit like cattle ranching, and this is the round-up.

(reeling in nets, fish flapping, landing on deck)

FITZPATRICK: After two hours, the Fletchers begin to haul in their net. They've snagged several hatchery chum salmon, each about two feet long.

F. FLETCHER: [Calls over engines] Oh, they don't look too bad size-wise. Here you go.

(Fish drop in)

FITZPATRICK: They untangle each fish from the mesh. Many are still wiggling as they drop to the deck.

(Fish drop)

D. FLETCHER: Lively guy.

FITZPATRICK: It's a tough, bloody job. But to Dave, it's important work.

D. FLETCHER: I know that fish is going to go to the market, and someone is going to eat something that's good for them.

FITZPATRICK: There's a problem, though, with this type of fishing. Wild salmon ply these waters along with the hatchery fish, and inevitably big nets like the Fletchers' will snare some of the wild salmon. This is known in the industry as bycatch. And many Northwest residents believe it is harming fragile wild populations.

MAN: Do you ladies know about our initiative to save salmon by getting the nets out of Puget Sound and the Columbia River? You can help save salmon with just a signature.

WOMEN: Okay. Sure.

MAN: Great, thanks.

FITZPATRICK: Earlier this year, a petition drive netted more than 200,000 signatures to put a proposal on the November ballot in Washington. It could outlaw most types of commercial fishing nets.

MAN: Thanks for your help.

WOMAN: You're welcome.

MAN: You're going to feel better about yourself. You wait and see.

FITZPATRICK: The initiative was written by the editor of a sports fishing publication, Tom Nelson. He's trying to get rid of nets because he says they catch and kill thousands of wild salmon every year.

NELSON: Basically, the idea of the initiative is to stop any net fishing that is an indiscriminate killer in the state of Washington. By that I mean nets that can't release fish alive after they're caught. Can't sort, so they have a huge bycatch. Nets that drown other things than their intended targets.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Nelson's initiative isn't motivated only by concern for wild fish. He feels commercial boats are squeezing out his industry, sports fishing, by catching too great a share of Washington salmon. He says that banning most types of commercial equipment would make more salmon available for sports fishers.

(To Nelson) Well, what's the difference if commercial fishermen kill the fish, or sports fishermen kill the fish?

NELSON: There is no difference. A dead fish is a dead fish. The difference is the commercial fishing technology is so great that in a few hours fishing they catch more than sport fishermen catch all year long.

FITZPATRICK: Many environmentalists, however, feel the focus on fishing is misguided. They think it might actually hurt the salmon's chances of survival.

ZIMMER: Commercial fishing is not the biggest threat, and not all commercial fishing is bad. But the commercial fishing community, it's very easy to target them as a threat.

FITZPATRICK: Chris Zimmer is the spokesman for a partnership of fishing and environmental organizations called the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

(Gulls call)

FITZPATRICK: Walking along Seattle's bustling waterfront, which was once prime salmon habitat, Mr. Zimmer says salmon face problems far worse than fishing.

ZIMMER: As we look at the biggest threats to the fish, a lot of that comes from timber and agriculture and development, very powerful industries that are hard to take on.

FITZPATRICK: Because of their unique migratory pattern from freshwater to saltwater and back, wild salmon need a wide range of healthy habitat. But today, huge dams are blocking important rivers. Clear-cut logging is damaging spawning streams. Vast irrigation projects are diverting river water to farms and development is paving over critical wetlands. Mr. Zimmer worries the political will to confront these problems could be lost if voters pass the no nets initiative.

ZIMMER: I think that would tend to leave some of the biggest problems off the hook. If we focus this on what we think is an easy fix on getting rid of harvest, we may stop there. We may not be able to go farther and deal with the habitat issues. And we send a message that we can easily fix this with harvest restrictions, and that's not true.

FITZPATRICK: Most experts agree with Mr. Zimmer that habitat protection is more important to wild salmon recovery than new fishing restrictions. But not everyone agrees. Many farmers, ranchers, and developers insist that fishing is the biggest problem. And some of them have banded together to open a second front in the northwest salmon wars. They've gone to court seeking a fishing moratorium.

WOOSLEY: The suit was filed in frustration with the fact that the National Fisheries Service seems to be focusing on the habitat side, rather than going after where we believe that the real solution will be.

FITZPATRICK: Todd Woosley is a realtor and a leader of the Common Sense Salmon Recovery Coalition. He fears the Northwest economy will nosedive if dams are torn down and development restricted to save wild salmon. He supports some habitat protection, but says drastic steps could be avoided by paying more attention to fishing.

WOOSLEY: I believe that habitat plays a certain role in it, but I think that what we have to do is ask ourselves, where will we get the most bang for the buck out of the limited resources we have to effect the recovery of this endangered species?

FITZPATRICK: The lawsuit and the No Nets Initiative won't settle the debate over wild salmon once and for all. But the ballot initiative will decide whether fishermen like Frank Fletcher can stay in business.

F. FLETCHER: If it passes, I'm a felon. I take offence to that. A felon. For a way of life, I'm a felon, for being a commercial fisherman.

(Engines; fish dropping)

FITZPATRICK: As he and his son clear salmon from their net, Mr. Fletcher concedes overfishing was a big problem in the past. It's part of the reason wild runs began to decline in the first place. But these days he says fishing is highly restricted, to certain days and certain places and certain healthy runs. The number of fishing licenses has been cut in half and harvest quotas have been slashed.

F. FLETCHER: They tell me when I can fish, how I can fish, and with what. I adhere to the law, I go out and I do my job. And I don't feel I'm harming anything when they tell me to go ahead.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Fletcher feels his industry is already doing its part. Still, his son Dave admits fishing has an image problem.

D. FLETCHER: The public perceives commercial fishing as politically incorrect, more or less, that we're out here killing everything that's in contact with this net.


FITZPATRICK: In fact, though, of the 35 fish the Fletchers have netted today, 34 are the target run, hatchery chum. One is a coho, and it came from a hatchery, too. Later in the season, they' pull in bigger hauls of fish, but the proportion will likely be about the same. A government study shows that 96 percent of the fish caught by Washington salmon nets are what the fishermen intend to catch. The rest, about four percent, is bycatch. That's thousands of fish that are caught and killed unintentionally. But nobody knows for sure how many of them are endangered wild salmon.

(Engines; boat cutting through water)

FITZPATRICK: Headed back to port, Frank Fletcher tells me that fishermen are optimists at heart. They have to be to survive the uncertainties of the sea. But these days it's human uncertainty he's worried about. Rightly or wrongly, fishermen are being blamed for the Pacific salmon crisis. And like the wild salmon, many fishermen are afraid that they, too, are on the brink of extinction.



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