ILWACO — Commercial fishing fleets are skeletons of their former selves and their communities, once known for their abundant natural resources and food production, are suffering from increased poverty and food insecurity.
In response, about 50 state and local officials, scientists, researchers, business owners and fishermen convened Friday, Oct. 5, for a ‘Fisheries Roundtable’ discussion at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum in Ilwaco. They explored options to improving coastal fisheries and the communities they serve.
Salmon runs in the Columbia River estuary and the nearby Pacific Ocean once supported a variety of thriving industries. Construction of the hydropower system, changes in the ocean food web, large-scale predation and other problems have sliced salmon runs down to a small fraction of their former grandeur. At the same time, evolving fisheries management philosophies have scaled back hatchery salmon production, just as there is a new recognition of the importance of enhancing Chinook salmon abundance in support of struggling Southern Resident Killer Whales. The roundtable was organized to begin formulating a united path forward.
Concerns regarding hatchery funding, predation issues, catch quotas and policies were reviewed during the five-hour meeting. Discussion addressed the fallout from malfunctioning fisheries in communities in Pacific, Grays Harbor and Wahkiakum counties, where food insecurity has increased. These are communities that were traditionally food producers but are now failing to feed some families.
“There is a hunger in these counties,” said historical researcher and Episcopal priest Irene Martin of Skamokawa, one of several people to speak from personal experience during the meeting. “There’s a great irony here, and it’s not a good one.”
Coalition of Coastal Fisheries President Dale Beasley of Ilwaco urged a start to rebuilding fisheries and the fishing industry.
“Back in the 1970s, our Ilwaco fleet brought in over 400,000 salmon,” said Beasley, a retired commercial fisherman and crabber. “This past year was under 30,000.”
The reduced catch in commercial tonnage leads to other problems in the community, including less leverage for dredge support, vital for ports in Ilwaco and Chinook. Only commercial harvests are counted as incoming freight, which determines eligibility for federal dredge funding.
“Our fish processors have been forced to consolidate and reduce their workforce,” Beasley continued. “More salmon abundance will bring our communities back from the brink of extinction.”
Coho Charters owner Butch Smith of Ilwaco echoed similar sentiments, encouraging agencies to increase hatchery production.
“Today, the pie is hardly big enough to fight over; we need to increase stock.” Smith said. “What we’re doing now is not working, neither for the commercial fisheries nor the tribes, who are losing their community vitality.”
Discussion volleyed between scientists, researchers and fishermen, each adding input and experiences, and suggesting how current policies could be improved.
Commercial fisherman and clam farmer Ernie Soule of Nahcotta expressed his dissatisfaction with current policies, pleading for changes to ease the burden on commercial fishermen who often face a ‘fish or go hungry’ scenario as a result of increased regulations.
“I’ve lost my sons,” Soule said, regarding the deaths of his two adult sons this May and in 2015. “It’s time someone spoke up.”
The message seemed clear to officials in attendance, which included U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-WA3rd, and Derek Kilmer, D-WA6th, Democratic congressional candidate Carolyn Long of Vancouver and state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen.
“You heard a number of folks talk about how vital this industry is to the local community, how important it is that there’s policies that support the industry and jobs and communities impacted,” Kilmer said after the meeting.
The meeting closed with attendees asking for a multifaceted solution to improving salmon stocks, which could in turn improve the quality of life for fishermen and families.
“There is no silver bullet to this,” Kilmer continued.
“It’s more like silver buckshot. Everything from a science-based way of looking at hatchery production to habitat protection to water quality issues to predation. All of these are factors that affect the fish populations that affect jobs downstream. We’ve got to work on all these issues,” he said.