COLUMBIA RIVER — They cleaned out the office after Christmas. Into the moving van went the old signs and the newspaper clippings documenting achievements and battles for river fisheries. Out went the boxes filled with index cards listing the names of past Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union members — and the dates they died. And the faded photographs and paintings of fishing boats that have sunk, sold or come to rest in museums. And boxes of old Columbia River Gillnetter magazines, a union publication founded in 1969.
Jon Westerholm, who has edited the Gillnetter since 2003, sifted through papers as his son, Erik, loaded the van. Each picture of a fishing boat sparked a memory, sometimes the name of the fisherman who had owned it. But, Westerholm would often note, “He’s gone now.”
The office on Gateway Avenue was a collection of vanished and vanishing things.
For years, Westerholm kept the union office open as a volunteer. In addition to editing and publishing the Gillnetter, he also coordinated a recycling program to gather up old gillnets. But at 83 years old, he is transitioning into a different phase of his life. A new issue of the Gillnetter hasn’t gone out since 2015.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel,” said union president Darren Crookshanks, a commercial fisherman based out of Longview. At 49, he’s the union member Westerholm and secretary Jack Marincovich call “the young guy.”
For more than 140 years, the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union, first as an aid organization and later as a union, advocated on behalf of the river’s gillnet fishermen and salmon conservation. But longtime union members, volunteers and fishermen like Westerholm are aging out of the work and stepping down from roles they’ve filled for decades. Union membership has dwindled in step with fishing opportunities on the Columbia River and no one has raised their hand to take over the magazine.
“I’m going to get ahold of all our active members, going to start politicking and see if we can’t get some new, younger members to help out,” Crookshanks said. “I’m going to do what I can to keep the doors open.”
The fishery the union defended for more than a century and the Gillnetter documented remains in limbo.
The push and pull of endangered salmon species listed on the Columbia River, changes to regulations about where and when and how much fishermen can fish, the ever-present tensions between sport fishing and commercial fishing — all contribute to a gillnet fishery that today is hemmed in.
‘Back of the pipeline’
Gillnetting used to be an easy way to feel out a career in fishing. Men like Westerholm and Marincovich grew up with Columbia River gillnetters all around them. As teenagers they’d be recruited to help out on an uncle’s or family friend’s boat.
For a young fisherman just getting started, a gillnet boat and gear were an investment but usually a safe one. You could step your way up into something bigger and if money was tight or fishing was bad elsewhere, seasons on the river remained an option.
“The Columbia River salmon fishery was not the first non-native fishery on the West Coast, but it has been the foremost,” said Hobe Kytr, director of Salmon For All, a commercial gillnetting advocacy organization based in Astoria. “The Columbia is the mother of all salmon streams.”
In 2012, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, along with Washington state fishery managers, put into motion a plan to phase gillnet gear off the main stem of the Columbia River by 2017 and replace it with other types of gear that would, in theory, be more selective in the fish it caught. Oregon’s fish and wildlife commission has since tried to walk back from the plan, unsuccessfully pushing to give gillnetters back time on the river last year.
Washington state has continued to move forward, testing gear such as purse and beach seine nets. The gillnet fishermen said the plan would kill their way of life. In the last five years it has certainly taken its toll, said Jim Wells, president of Salmon For All.
In 2017, there was no spring season on the main stem, and no summer season for the first time in many years. There were only seven main stem openings in the fall. To contrast, the gillnetters had 53 openings on the river main stem in the summer and fall in 2014, according to Wells. An extended spring season in off-channel areas brought in salmon during the spring, but not enough to build a life around.
Sally the Salmon was always on the cover of The Gillnetter. A simple illustration, she posed seductively, one fin on her fishy hip, the other back against the side of her head like a World War II pinup. She had big, long-lashed eyes and — to put it politely — anatomy. And she had opinions.
“Too many sea lions in the Columbia River could be the death of me!” she noted in the 2006 winter edition.
She told jokes (“Why do some salmon develop hooked noses? They bumped into dams when they were young”); she honored the memory of deceased fishermen; she made an argument for global warming; she said salmon are here “for equal use and consumption among all people.”
“Such a great river, the Columbia,” she said in 2006. “What would it be without me?” She reminded readers often: “I have been here to see it all.”
Closing the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union office right before the new year was like closing a book, one Westerholm does not expect to open again. Though it may not be the end of the union, it does mark the end of the Gillnetter magazine, as far as he can tell. Erik Westerholm hopes they can put out an official farewell edition, but he isn’t sure if that will be possible.
When Don Riswick started the magazine in 1969, the Gillnetter was a hub for stories, information about policies and regulations and news. Riswick passed the editorship to Westerholm in 2003 when he was 86 years old. He died two years later, leaving, as Westerholm wrote in a tribute to the founding editor, “a void in the senior leadership of our fishing industry.”
Under Westerholm’s editorship, the focus of the magazine shifted slightly, tending more towards histories and stories than news. Westerholm and his contributors published opinion pieces decrying plans to push gillnets off the river, calling for robust conservation efforts and questioning the states’ plans.
“The Gillnetter was important in defining and defending the legacy of commercial gillnetting on the Columbia River,” Kytr said. “It’s been the keeper of memories.”
“It’s something else,” Jon Westerholm said, looking around the office, a narrow room with a door at one end and a window at the other. He used to be in and out just about every other day. “We’ve been practically living in here for pretty close to 10 years now I guess.”
“What it stood for,” he mused. “How we worked into it. Maybe it’s not quite as important to people now as it was to me and to people of my age group.”
A way of life
Jack Marincovich glanced at the front page of the day’s newspaper, paused to look at a photo of an Astoria high school senior kicking a football, flipped back and settled down to read the obituaries.
“All our old friends are dying,” he said.
For years Marincovich has been the executive secretary for the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union, though these duties have taken a back seat over the years. He and his wife, Georgia, have been vocal opponents of what became known as the Kitzhaber Plan to phase gillnets off the main stem of the Columbia River. Georgia Marincovich still bristles at the memory of a fish and wildlife official calling the gillnet fleet the “mop up fishery.”
Like Westerholm, they are part of a generation that can remember the river’s heyday. Jack Marincovich, 85, comes from a long line of Croatian fishermen. He started fishing when he was teenager. He fished in Alaska as well as the Columbia River. His last trip was in 2007 when he was 75. He can remember when the union included numerous fishermen up and down the river. Now he reads the obituaries, looking for familiar names.
He hadn’t intended to be a fisherman, he said.
“You wanted to do something else, but it was a part of life,” he said. “It just kind of stuck to you.”
Gillnetters now fish areas once considered supplementary fishing grounds, off-shoots like Youngs Bay or Tongue Point — what the states refer to as “select areas,” and what Wells calls “the back of the pipeline.”
Hundreds of sport fishing and guide boats crowd both sides of the river nearly every day during the popular Buoy 10 season in the summer. When the weather heats up, shallow Youngs Bay is not as attractive to fish and commercial fishermen must also compete with other river residents, hungry sea lions and fish-eating birds.
“You get the scraps,” Wells said. “To think that this is going to replace our main stem fishery, no way.”
The commercial fishermen believe they could and should get a bigger slice of the fishing pie. Sport fishermen can only target so many fish, they argue. Meanwhile, a large number of the fish made available by state fishery managers goes uncaught. Wasted and unavailable to the consuming public, the commercial fishermen maintain.
It’s a battle the gillnetters have been waging for years, and one they seem no closer to winning. The only glimmers of hope Kytr sees are changes at the two states’ fish and wildlife commissions. Commissioners who have, in the past, pushed to move gillnetters off the river have started to change their minds or have been replaced with new commissioners who may be more sympathetic to the gillnetters’ pleas, he said.
He is waiting to see what the new year will bring.