Newsweek article on the state of Oregon’s salmon-fishing industry.

By Winston Ross
April 16, 2008

College didn’t take, and logging threatened to kill him, so Jared Reeves followed in his father’s wake and climbed aboard a salmon troller in 2005, lured by the prospect of a six-figure income in a single summer out on the Pacific Ocean.

Any fishing industry is subject to boom-and-bust cycles, Reeves knew. He’d grown up watching the collapse of groundfish stocks on the West Coast, and the weather can pin down a fleet for much of a season. But things looked good for the wild salmon business. Federal fishery managers had seemed to discover the right formula for how much to let trollers catch, ensuring that the population wasn’t decimated by an overzealous fleet, and the buying public had grown increasingly willing to pay high prices for wild fish, thanks to mounting concerns about the health risks and poor quality of the farmed, imported salmon that dominates chain-supermarket shelves across the country.

Reeves’s enthusiasm was quickly drenched. The Interior Department’s 2002 decision to resume using water out of the Klamath River to irrigate parched farms in eastern Oregon led to a collapse of the critical Chinook salmon spawning grounds the same year Reeves joined the fleet, killing more than 30,000 fish. Forced by law to maintain a predetermined “floor” of salmon in the ocean, federal regulators had little choice but to impose limitations on what the 1,200-member West Coast commercial fleet could catch, robbing salmon trollers of their ability to capitalize on the newfound demand for wild seafood.

This was supposed to be the season where the fleet bounced back. Returns of spawning fish on the Klamath have finally started to recover. Demand and prices for fat, wriggling Chinook salmon are still soaring–people pay as much as $20 per pound at markets across the United States–and a troller can earn up to $100 for a single fish.

Why, then, did the Pacific Fishery Management Council vote last week in favor of the most restricted season in the West Coast salmon fleet’s history?

The answer lies in another river system: the Sacramento, which winds its way from Mount Shasta, 382 miles through California’s Central Valley, before dumping into the San Francisco Bay. Large enough to accommodate oceangoing vessels as far inland as the Golden State’s capital, the Sacramento is the West Coast’s most important source of Chinook salmon. And for reasons nobody is really sure about, the Sacramento’s salmon stocks have collapsed. Salmon returning to spawn dropped to 90,000 last year from a steady average of about 475,000.

Scientists blame changing ocean conditions, but frustrated salmon farmers cite a host of other factors: There’s water diverted to farmland on the Sacramento as well as the Klamath; brazen, federally protected sea lions and terns munching on young fish as they flop across fish ladders; dams that hamper the salmon’s ability to travel; Chinook ripped out of the ocean incidentally by the mammoth boats that make up the whiting fleet. In short, any number of factors could influence the fate of Chinook salmon–none of which involve trollers hauling in too many fish, regulators are quick to admit.

“This is a problem that society has created,” said Jennifer Gilden, spokeswoman for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, whose recommendation for a drastic cut in allowable fishing is likely to be adopted May 1 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re destroying the habitat for these fish, and it’s the fishermen who end up paying the price. This is not a problem of overfishing.”

The complete closure of the California coast and most of Oregon’s coast is the largest shutdown in the history of the salmon fleet. Salmon trollers will be allowed to lure only 9,000 hatchery-raised coho salmon in central and southern Oregon. These are boats accustomed to bringing in more than 800,000 fish per year, between 2000 and 2005. The average income to fishermen and coastal communities from the commercial and recreational salmon fishery was $103 million between 1979 and 2004.

“This is devastating,” said Darus Peake, chairman of the Oregon Salmon Commission and a Garibaldi troller. “If you’re depending on salmon for any part of your income, take that out. It’s gone. Whether you’re the fisherman, the fisherman’s family, the gas station on the corner, the bait shop, the motel; if you expected so many dollars from tourism, it’s gone.”

Some trollers will try their hand at other fisheries, such as black cod and tuna, but with diesel fuel prices topping $4 a gallon, it’s tough to live without salmon, they say. Other fishermen will spend this summer asking for help and demanding answers about why an icon that is as symbolic of the Pacific Northwest as rain is so imperiled. One group of trollers traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to call for a congressional investigation into the collapse of salmon stocks, and federal lawmakers are pressing the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for a disaster declaration that could help buoy boats in the short term.

What nobody really wants is to face the terrifying underlying question: is this the beginning of the end?

“You want to know,” said Onno Husing, executive director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Agency, which advocates for government entities on the coast, “how many rivets out of the airplane can you lose, before the thing will break apart? These people are amazingly resourceful and they care so deeply about what they do. It’s much more than just an average job. It’s a way of life. With that comes a certain tenacity, even if it doesn’t make economic sense.”

What made sense to Jared Reeves was to jump ship, after maxed-out credit cards drove him out of the salmon business. He’s now counting endangered birds for the Bureau of Land Management.

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