Fisherman's Wrath

A campaign targeting gillnetters takes class war to the Columbia River.


In his right hand, he grasps a 2½-foot stick with a curved metal gaffe on the end. He swings it twice from the elbow. The hook cuts like a scythe into the fish's brain.

Ihander lets the dying salmon fall to the deck, two thin strands of mesh still snagged around its gills, a dime-sized dab of blood below its eye.

“Nice fish there,” Ihander says. “Six dollars a pound, 17 pounds, $100 bill.” 

The salmon's tail slaps the deck one last time before it turns into money.

Ihander has been doing this work since he was 12. He's one of the last of his kind, an Oregon gillnetter. For generations, gillnetters have been working in the same way: small boats laying thousands of feet of net in Northwest rivers, then plucking out their harvest, one fish at a time.

Only about 200 gillnetters still work in Oregon, sending fish to local canneries and the white china of Portland's best restaurants. Their take represents a tiny slice of the fish killed every year by sport fishermen, sea lions and the Columbia River dams. 

But this livelihood is being targeted for extinction by an unusual coalition of conservation groups, wealthy sport fishermen and businesses that cater to them. They call gillnetting an antiquated and inhumane practice that kills indiscriminately and causes gruesome deaths for aquatic birds and marine mammals.

"Anything and everything that swims into them are ensnarled," says David Schamp, director of the 10,000-member Coastal Conservation Association of Oregon, one of the groups supporting the ban. "We believe a high percentage of whatever is captured perishes—and we don't believe that's a good thing."

Proponents have so far offered little in the way of quantifiable evidence to make their case, and they've been unable for years to persuade lawmakers to ban gillnetting.

So they are pushing for a ballot measure this fall. Bankrolled by a political committee called Stop Gillnetting Now, backers have collected more than 92,000 signatures. They need 87,000 valid ones by July 6 to qualify for the November ballot.

The campaign has made for some odd alliances: Environmentalists are holding hands with one wealthy backer, Loren Parks, the conservative millionaire who financed many anti-tax campaigns and for years paid the bills for initiative activist Bill Sizemore. Parks put $20,000 of seed money into the initiative petition. Another wealthy sport fisherman, Norman L. Brenden of Olympia, Wash., has become Oregon's biggest political donor, pouring $505,000 into the campaign war chest.

Gillnetters fear they will be unable to afford a campaign to fight back, and that voters will be swayed by misinformation and hyperbole.

"It ain't saving one fish," says Jim Wells, a commercial fisherman and president of Salmon for All, which represents the gillnetters. "This is not about conservation, it's about allocation. It's a sham."

The measure is the latest round in an old battle of who gets to catch the fish, and who gets the money for them.

Sportfishing in Oregon is a $30 million-a-year industry, according to a 2009 Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife study. Its rival industry, commercial fishing, produced $284 million in income in the state last year, an ODFW study shows. Of that, commercial ocean and river salmon accounted for $6.7 million, and gillnetting specifically for about $5 million. 

"I've always looked at it as two kids playing on the railroad track, with the locomotive bearing down on them," says John North, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Columbia River fisheries manager, of both sides in the fight. "They're too busy throwing rocks at each other to notice the bigger problem."

That is, too few fish for too many people.

If the measure makes the ballot, the fight will force voters to endure grisly photos of marine life injured by nets—a PR barrage the fishermen hint they might counter with cameos from their grizzled friends on the Discovery Channel's hit show Deadliest Catch.

The fight is about more than a struggle for the millions of dollars these salmon represent to the sportfishing industry and some tough-talking fourth-generation fishermen.

Instead, the fight is over what kind of place Oregon is, and how its people will make a living. It's about the state's shift away from the historical resource-extraction economy and toward the service sector, and the steady disappearance of an endangered species: Oregon's blue-collar middle class, a people who could live comfortably from the land without necessarily going into debt for a college degree. 


Or it might have been caught by a gillnetter like Mark Ihander.

At mid-afternoon on a recent Wednesday, Ihander, 60, launches his nameless 22-foot boat from a private wooden pier at Astoria's Tide Point Restaurant on the Nehalem Highway. The boat putters loudly away on the power of its 350-horsepower outboard into the bay, fed by the Youngs River. He's just upstream from the tall, narrow old Warrenton-Astoria Highway bridge; the Astor Column looms to the north. Two bald eagles glide low overhead. 

The baywaters are shallow and muddy, a so-called "select area" set aside for fishermen by the state and stocked each year with tens of thousands of hatchery salmon subsidized by hydroelectric ratepayers.

Ihander started work at 5 am, making four drifts across the bay. He caught one fish all morning.

The afternoon looks to be better. 

Critics are correct that gillnetting is antiquated. Its practitioners prefer to call it traditional.

If the gillnetters seem preoccupied with heritage—who is of Norwegian stock, who is Finnish or Italian or Irish, and who is fresh off the boat—that's because they have spent years dragging the same kind of nets around the same waters as their ancestors.

Ihander may have been born in Astoria, but he is Finnish first. 

"My grandfather," he says, "went 55 years without power, on the sea."


Today, gill nets are more or less the only permitted commercial fishing apparatus on the Columbia River. Many other types of gear were eventually outlawed: fish traps, fish wheels and seine nets, which work like a funnel.

Gill nets are so called because they're designed to snag fish by the gills. Most other states ban gill nets. Oregon strictly regulates their design and deployment. 

The boats themselves can be spotted by the large spools, called drums, on their decks. Wound tight and thick around the center of the spool is a pale bluish-white wad of net. 

The weave of the mesh, hypnotically complex, stretches between a dark, heavy lead line, which sinks to the bottom, and a bright blue cork line, which with the help of those small white floats the shape of a Nerf football, stays near the water's surface. The gauge of this mesh is 7 inches, sized for spring chinook.

Ihander's boat has one steering wheel inside the cabin and another full of controls outside the cabin, on the starboard side near the spool. This allows Ihander to work the net and pilot the boat at the same time, without help from a crew.

Wedged between the net and the bulwark, he sets the boat into reverse, and the spool begins to unwind.

With his left hand on the wheel, he guides the boat backward across the bay. With his right, he tugs now and again at the cork line to keep it on track and to straighten any tangles in the mesh before it vanishes under the water. He will lay 750 feet of net into Youngs Bay—less than half of the legal length.

The spool turns quickly, and every second, another white float slides onto the water. 

"The thing about being in such a small, tight boat like this," he shouts over the noise of the motor, "you've got to be careful when you're laying the net out. More than once a guy has gotten his feet jerked out from under him."

Ihander doesn't wear a life jacket, at least not here in Youngs Bay. 

And he usually works alone, even in Alaska. Surprisingly agile, he moves carefully but confidently around the net drum. 

Caution is warranted. This work can kill. Many years ago, five of Ihander's good friends—then young men seeking their fortune in the Alaska waters—drowned, their bodies never recovered, on a fishing expedition he was invited on. Last year, his father slipped and hit his head while fishing; he died before Ihander's brother could get him to the hospital.

Ihander holds up his left hand and clenches it. The ring finger doesn't bend like the others. An accident on the bulwark once severed the finger. His crewmates put it on ice like a caught fish, and the finger was later reattached.

He's been through worse on land.

Eight years ago, Ihander was diagnosed with lung cancer. He credits his recovery to many gallons of green tea and two rounds of chemotherapy at OHSU arranged by his wife. While most chemo patients lose a lot of weight, Ihlander says he gained 40 pounds during treatment, improving his odds of survival. He says whenever he began to vomit, he just swallowed it. And so fishing—all the decades spent around fish guts and grievous wounds—helped save his life, by making him less squeamish. "I mean, we've had to stitch ourselves up, for chrissakes," he says. "There's nobody to help you."

Ihander stops. "There's a fish!" he says. "I heard a snap. That meant he broke a mesh."

He sounds as excited as if he'd never seen one before.

That's a fairly small share of the overall salmon catch. Tribes are entitled to half of the overall allowable harvest. Sport fisherman take most of the rest. According to ODFW figures, since 2000 in the Columbia River and its tributaries, sport fishermen took 82 percent of the reported salmon, not counting the tribal share.

Gillnetters take a share of what's left, but the proposed ballot measure would make the practice illegal, and outlaw the sale of fish caught by gill net in Oregon. (Tribal fisherman could still use them and sell the fish, though most of their catch is consumed ceremonially.)

Supporters of the ballot measure say there are several reasons to outlaw gill nets—including the fact many states have already done so. (Gill nets are legal across the Columbia in Washington but were banned in California coastal waters by a 1990 proposition that provided compensation to displaced fishermen.)

Advocates say gill nets cause a high mortality rate for fish that manage to escape from the mesh, and produce a high amount of "bycatch"—nontargeted species—compared to other, more selective forms of fishing.

"It's about moving the industry forward, not eliminating it," says Jeremy Wright of Wright Communications and Public Affairs, which has advised the anti-gillnetting campaign.

They also say the nets cause the salmon to suffer. They produce pictures of fish with the scales and skin around their heads peeled off, raw and pink flesh showing through their heads. Other photos show salmon with torn gills, and seals with deep, bleeding wounds around their necks from the nets. 

And they say other sea life—birds and seals, for example, get caught in the nets.

Anti-gillnetting campaigners say the proof for all this is in the photos—which is problematic. The campaign shared several images with WW that show abandoned nets, injured salmon and seals, and it claimed all were taken within the past couple of years on the Columbia River. But when pressed for details, the campaign changed that story—a third of the photos are years old, and one was outside Oregon. And the campaign hasn't been able to say when and where the photos of seals were taken.

However, studies specifically comparing gill nets and seine nets on Columbia River salmon are limited and incomplete. The distinction is important, because the results can be dramatically affected by mesh-net size and type, water temperature, depth and speed, other unique geographic factors and the species involved. 

The measure would allow fishermen to use a different kind of net, called a purse seine that hangs like a basket underwater, then tightens around the fish before hauling them by crane into a boat. Ironically, Oregon voters approved a ban on purse seine nets in 1948, a measure supported by gillnetters.

"They were probably pitching the same arguments back then, that the seine was too effective," says North, the ODFW Columbia River fisheries manager. "It probably came down to money like everything else…. It's not that different from what's going on now."

Backers say gill nets end up injuring—and killing—too many fish that escape. They say studies show gill nets have a mortality rate of 80 percent or higher, up to 100 percent. "The science is clear," says Eric Stachon, spokesman for Stop Gillnetting Now.


"By my experience, if you're handling 10 sockeye in a gill net, you might kill five," North says. "But if you lay out a seine and you catch 100, and the mortality rate is 5 percent, you still kill the same number of fish."

The measure is potentially a local boon to the national $45 billion sportfishing industry, which includes guides, charters and, most of all, companies that make and sell gear. An influential voice among the backers is former ODFW fisheries chief Jim Martin, who now works for Pure Fishing, a major sport-tackle manufacturer owned by Jarden Corp.

Another ban booster, the founding chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association's Pacific Northwest affiliates, Gary Loomis, was a pioneer in the development of graphite fishing rods.

The gillnetters feel the focus on their methods at the exclusion of others is unfair.

For instance, federal figures show that anglers' discarded hooks kill dozens of sea lions each year in Oregon, California and Washington. Hydroelectric dams kill many more.

The gillnetters treat their role as villains with bitter irony and dark humor.

"I always say, 'A sport fisherman kills a fish, it goes to heaven," says Mike Wullger, aka "Big Mike," a 35-year commercial fisherman and board member of Salmon for All, the gillnetters' group. "A gillnetter kills a fish, it goes to hell.” 

Ihander hefts it over the bow and, for a moment, the great prehistoric fish seems to stand upright—and either man or fish might go overboard.

He brings it down to the deck on its side, revealing its pale pink belly and strange cauliflower mouth. 

From snout to tail, the sturgeon is wrapped in the net. Ihander grabs a long, thin blade like a steak knife, moves toward the still-struggling sturgeon and cuts away the mesh near the fish's eyes. Ihander bends, encircles the fish in his arms, and heaves it over the port side.

"Too big. Oversize," Ihander says, explaining why he didn't keep the sturgeon. "Those are our spawners. We don't want to touch them."

Ihander notes how little injury the fish faced. Only the fish knows for sure.

"That's not like you've played him out in the fishing line for an hour," he says. "That one, he'd probably been in a net before, so he said, 'I'll just wait here till he lets me out.'"


What they fear most is that their kids will spend their lives working as Wal-Mart associates, or serving coffee to sport fishermen with shiny new boats.

Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria, employs up to 25 seasonal workers, many of them young people.

"They make enough money to go to school," he says. "In turn, by going to college, they get some options in their life. You're not going to do that if you take [gillnetting] away from us and you give another day or two a year to the recreational fishery. You're not going to pour enough coffees for those people."

It's not really about the fish, as the gillnetters see it. It's about Old Oregon vs. New Oregon.

Old Oregon is logging, fishing and hard living, every day.

New Oregon is craft brewing, JavaScript coding and occasional nature walks—or, at least, selling bait and tackle once a year to tourists who can afford such things.

"All of Oregon was created by commercial fishers. Not sport fishers," Ihander says, turning grave. "When we're gone, you're gone."

Campaigners favoring an end to gillnetting show little sympathy for the fishermen. 

Read deeply enough into the sport fishermen's online forums, and the studies the industry has commissioned, and one finds the blunt argument that the future has no room for old methods.

One essay on the Oregon Anglers' website says the government should "help train the commercial fishermen for a new occupation."

"Before you get all weepy-eyed for the poor commercial fishermen," the essay says, "know that their industry will not collapse if they cannot kill salmon."

While the fishermen depend on one another, a regional economy depends on all of them.

"If they're gone, we're done. It puts us and two employees out of work," says Bob Zakrzewski, co-owner of Columbia Pacific Marine Works at the Port of Astoria, which repairs boat engines, among other things, for sport and commercial fishermen alike.

Englund Marine and Industrial, a nearby retailer, also caters to sport and commercial fishermen from its headquarters shop at the port. The cavernous warehouse in the back of the shop has a full wall of gillnet gear, specially designed for the Columbia River and imported from Japan,

"Taking a handful of jobs out of rural area, it has a bigger impact than in the metro area," says Kurt Englund, whose family has run the company for seven decades. "In a small town like this, we can't survive on tackle alone."

At the muddy southern bank of the bay, Ihander draws the last of the gill net inside the boat. 

His boat reaches the shore as two fish buyers are walking along the pier. 

"Perfect timing, guys," Ihander says as he pilots his boat in. He raises the plank that covers his catch, and the men on the pier lean over the boat to inspect the afternoon take.

"Beautiful fish," says one of the men.

They work quickly to unload, grabbing salmon two at a time by the mouth. One of the buyers lashes Ihander's fish with a rope running through their mouths and gills. The fish will go off to a processing plant. Ihander in return gets a fish ticket, which he can redeem later for a check from the processor. Duplicates of each receipt must be repeated to ODFW within 24 hours.

"The whole Northwest eats our food," says John Coetzee, co-owner of St. Pauls, a fish processor in Hammond, Ore., after packing Ihander's fish in ice. "We're supplying A-grade food to the restaurants right here."

Ihander says he has never eaten a farmed fish. Like any discerning Portland foodie, he prefers to know where his meat comes from—and who made the kill.

“To this day,” he says, “I like seeing the fish hit the net.” 

WWeek 2015

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