Updated 6/22/10

The heart of tiny Astoria, Ore., lies hidden behind the weather-beaten buildings of its gritty industrial waterfront. Docks line this lucky stretch of flat land at the base of the Coastal Range, hosting a lucrative fishing industry that reaches from Youngs Bay into the mouth of the Columbia River, several miles inland.

In 2008, fishermen landed $34.5 million worth of seafood in this town, mostly Dungeness crab, Pacific whiting and groundfish. The catch included $3.5 million in Columbia River salmon harvested with gillnets, which, along with tangle nets -- a smaller-gauge mesh version of the gillnet -- are the only gear legal for commercial use on the Columbia.

Steve Fick, a native Astorian, has been hanging gillnets since he was 18 and fishing his way through college. On the dock at Fishhawk Fisheries, a seafood-processing plant he founded at the age of 26, Fick and his stepson take turns stringing a gillnet to the line of cork that makes its top float, a process that takes hours. Once the net hits the water, a lead line at the bottom pulls it vertically into the river, like a wall. It’s a ruthlessly efficient system: Because gillnets snag their quarry by the gills rather than the nose or teeth, they allow fewer fish to escape than tangle nets do.

"This buys that new refrigerator. It puts your kid through college," says Fick, now 53, explaining that gillnets are an important part of an Astoria fisherman’s business plan. It’s a challenging occupation, which sometimes involves spending part of the season in Alaska, trolling for tuna and crabbing in the ocean, or supplementing off-season income with work on land.

Gillnets, however, are highly controversial in the United States because critics say they take more than their fair share of fish and kill species not targeted for harvest. They’ve been banned from virtually all freshwater fishing in the Lower 48, except in Washington and Oregon. Oregon voters rejected a proposed ban in the mid-1990s because the nets are the primary source of locally caught Columbia River fish, including spring chinook, which sells for up to $8 a pound and is much sought after by restaurants.

Now though, Oregon’s increasingly important tourism economy has made the state the likely stage for the next battle against gillnets. Six bills aimed at restricting gillnet use were brought to the Oregon Legislature in 2009. The most successful was a proposal to restrict gillnets to bays and side channels stocked with hatchery salmon, put forth by a group of retired Fish and Wildlife officials. But all the bills failed.

In their stead, a powerful nonprofit called the Coastal Conservation Association is working on a ballot measure for 2012 that would completely ban gillnets,  and likely tangle nets, ostensibly for the sake of wild salmon conservation. This effort is much better funded and organized than previous attempts, and is backed by sport fishermen who are hoping for a larger share of the catch.

Once the campaign starts, Oregonians as far away as dusty Burns, in the rural eastern reaches of the state, will be asked to sort through salmon politics, a messy job that’s traditionally left to fishermen, tribes and the seven government agencies that manage the fish. It’s a troubling arena for an emotional issue framed by hotly debated and often misunderstood science. Without a proven alternative to the gillnet, fishing communities like Astoria will face serious economic setbacks if the measure succeeds. And it’s not even clear that wild salmon would benefit.

At the center of the fight lies one simple fact: There are not enough fish in the Columbia River. Since 1991, 13 species of salmon and steelhead that originate in its waters have been listed as threatened or endangered, largely because of the death toll caused by dams.  As a result, the majority of returning salmon and steelhead are left in the river, with only a fraction allowed to be harvested. Above the Bonneville Dam, half of the catch -- or about 125,000 fish on average -- goes to tribes. The rest is split between sport and commercial fishermen below the dam.

The size of the total catch is heavily constrained by how many wild salmon are accidentally killed in the process. (Only hatchery-raised salmon, which are marked with a clipped fin, are legal to take.) And gillnets tend to kill the most fish. State regulators set catch limits on the Columbia by assuming that gillnets kill 40 percent of the wild salmon accidentally caught, compared to 14.7 percent for tangle nets and 10 percent for rod-and-reel sport fishing.