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for people who care about the West

Like a rogue net


Oregon's salmon politics have taken a curious turn. In late September several sportfishing groups publicly disavowed Measure 81, a voter initiative they had earlier sponsored to ban gillnets on the Columbia River. The reversal followed an announcement by Oregon governor John Kitzhaber that gillnets were his latest cause du mois and he wants them gone [pdf]; it was a preemptive strike against non-Indian netters. Aside from several online messages by Indian and non-Indian groups, however, opponents of 81 have been remarkably silent. The entire brawl sounded like a diver net. In one sense this is merciful. Depending on one's perspective this battle has been going on since 2011, 1908, 1877, 1825, 1810, or 1653, when Isaak Walton published The Compleat Angler. In another sense, though, the silence is terrible, because rural economies hinge on a process that has turned antidemocratic.

L'affaire 81 began in July 2011 when the Coastal Conservation Association started a petition drive to outlaw non-Indian gillnet fishing on the Columbia River. The CCA is to American sportfishing what the American Legislative Exchange Council is to American conservativism. Both are well-funded lobbying groups that write and disseminate prospective laws to receptive legislators at the state and federal level; where ALEC wants to bust unions and liberalize gun ownership, the CCA wants to eliminate nets and promote the angling industry. Measure 81’s petition drive garnered little attention, but its language was very controversial. Gillnetters saw in 81 an existential threat; fishing is one of many blue-collar occupations under assault in the rural West, but few workers have had targets on their backs longer than gillnetters. State lawmakers saw conflicts between 81 and the Columbia River Compact, an agreement between Oregon and Washington that emerged from similarly shortsighted initiatives long ago. Indians saw 81 as another potential attack on their treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. The CCA submitted signatures in May and in July Oregon’s Secretary of State approved 81 for the November ballot.

This is when Oregon’s long history of salmon fights began to frame events. Measure 81 is the latest in a run of angler-sponsored efforts since 1910 to evict commercial fishers from Oregon streams, yet anglers are but one army in this war. Indians, netters, and sportfishers have fought themselves and each other for a very long time. We can trace this back to 1908, when two industry-sponsored measures annihilated all fishing on Oregon’s side of the Columbia River and led to the Columbia River Compact. Or to 1877, when federal agents evicted Clackamas Indians to help commercial interests. Or to 1825, when the Hudson Bay Company’s John McLoughlin played hardball with Chinook Indians and American speculators. Or to 1810, when Teninos drove Mollalas from Sherar’s Falls. Fishers have been eliminating rivals seemingly forever. Like the broader story of western environmental politics, the salmon wars have been as much about who will benefit as about saving nature.

By late August this year, Oregon seemed fated for another sordid campaign. In the 1920s anglers depicted themselves as “red blooded,” “loyal, patriotic citizens” who were victimized as much as salmon by “ruthless” fishers of questionable citizenship. Historian Lawrence Lipin has shown that this was when sporting clubs used initiatives to realign fish fights from class struggles between workers and sportsmen to spatial contests between urban and rural interests. That divide persists. Angler rhetoric has lost its overt racism and ethnocentrism, shifting to a more depersonalized vision of imperiled nature, but assumptions of entitlement still inform their politics.

There is a lot wrong with the salmon fisheries. Harvests are not tuned to the genetics of stocks. Fishers burn gas chasing salmon around the ocean even though they know when and where fish will return to spawning streams, usually fatter and more valuable than at sea. Gear is not as selective as possible, but this applies as much to anglers’ hooks as to gillnetters’ “curtains of death.” Fishery managers require anglers to use barbless hooks and release non-clipped salmon, but there is still untold bycatch that can be significant [pdf] in places where anglers take most fish. Managers also set mesh-size and season restrictions for netters, but there is still untold bycatch that at times shuts down fishing. Most glaringly, evicting nets from rivers, which has been anglers’ desiradatum for a century, contradicts the view of most biologists and managers that river fisheries are the best way to tune salmon harvests to individual stocks.

There is an even larger disconnect, however. When we study this history, no angler measure has ever stemmed the long-term decline of Pacific salmon because anglers have never addressed that two-century engine of consumption which has devastated habitat via farming, grazing, logging, mining, and urbanization. Rather, as skeptics have long noted, these fish wars are, in political parlance, allocation battles that produce winners and losers, but salmon die either way. The current campaign has gone deep, pulled under by a fly-fishing governor. Meanwhile, Measure 81 remains on the ballot, lurking like a rogue net that threatens to create greater harm.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history department at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.

Images courtesy Flickr users Marion Doss and Lester Public Library.