PENINSULA — It’s been a tough two years for gillnetters on Willapa Bay. Battered by increasing costs, stifled by stricter regulation and furious over fewer fishing days, commercial gillnetters have been gritting their teeth since 2015 when a new management plan was instituted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As some in the industry were forced to sell their boats and find new work, others remain steadfast and galvanized in their resolve in calling for change in what they say has been mismanagement by WDFW officials in Olympia.
Approximately 40 commercial gillnetters currently work on Willapa, a small fraction of what used to be there.
“There isn’t a fleet here anymore,” said gillnetter Gary Walters, 59, in between drags on his cigarette. “There used to be 100 boats, now you’re lucky if there’s 10.” In 2016, 23 different gillnetters made deliveries at the Port of Peninsula during a season fragmented by frequent closures.
“It’s gotten worse and worse,” said Warren Cowell, a shellfish farmer and gillnetter who’s “losing hope.”
“Most of the gillnetters these days have other jobs,” Cowell said. “You can’t make a living as a gillnetter anymore.” For most, it means preparing for shifting gear and hope to another fishing season.
“A lot will work on their boats from the earlier season. The ones that crab go work on crab gear,” Cowell said. Walters estimates that 30 percent of his income comes from gillnetting, while the remainder is made hauling in crab pots during Dungeness season. He said the smaller share of income from gillnetting is a direct result of increasing regulations, some of which are meant to protect Chinook (also called Kings) and chum salmon (also called Dogs) in the bay.
“We basically don’t even get to fish for Chinook anymore. That’s a big part of our season gone. Now we’re losing part of our silver fishing because of the kings, and dogs, too. We’ve got nothing left,” Walters said. A gillnetter for past 35 years, Walters feels that the future is dim for the industry. Frequent rule-driven closures, increasing costs for fuel, gear and repairs have further distanced a new generation from getting into the gillnetter occupation.
“Unless something changes, there’s no future in this,” he said.
Finding a new profession isn’t a consideration for Cowell, who feels he has found his true calling.
“We’ve been here our whole lives. This is more than just a job. This is our culture, a way of life. It’s a calling for very small share of people who are independent and are willing to take chances. Commercial fishing has always been risky business financially and physically. We’re ambitious and hardworking men, it’s not like we can’t make a living another way, but we would like to make a living the way we always have and want to. This is a renewable, sustainable resource and always has been until recently,” he said.
The dwindling number of gillnetters has been alarming to others dependant on the industry. The impact of new 2015 regulation combined with fewer gillnetters has had a domino effect on other Pacific County industries from processors to wholesalers.
“On a good year on the Willapa, there was easily 60 boats fishing,” said Dean Antich, general manager at South Bend Products, a seafood wholesaler in South Bend.
“But this year it might have been 40. With the new policy in place along with the gear and date restrictions, I’ve seen guys sell their boats. There’s less guys fishing now,” he said.
“Last year was devastating,” Antich said.
“It was a disaster. We had no fishing in November at all. It was the first year of the policy. The fishery was closed because of a very poor return of coho, there just wasn’t a big return.”
“Not only is there an economic impact on the fishermen, there’s also an impact on my employees. I have fewer employees now than I would normally have and they’re getting a lot less hours. It impacts the industry, the wholesalers and processors, not just the gillnetters.”
Antich has about 25 employees on call for when the fish come in, but while fishing is closed, their phones won’t ring with available work. “Right now I’ve got 55 employees. We’re not a Monday through Friday 9 to 5. We work when we have fish. On the days they don’t fish, they don’t work.”
In April 2015, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission released a revised Willapa Bay salmon management plan centered largely around conserving and restoring naturally spawning Chinook — the descendants of hatchery fish that now are laying eggs without human intervention. Recent genetic testing found these “natural” salmon are identical to Willapa hatchery stock.
For fall Chinook, the plan called for stricter limits on mortality rates for natural-origin Chinook salmon by adding new restrictions to the fishing schedule, location and gear for gillnetters, the only commercial fishermen permitted on the Willapa. This included a 14 percent limit on mortality rates for Naselle and Willapa River natural-origin Chinook salmon and a 10 percent rate for chum.
“The policy is written primarily to support Chinook salmon. We don’t get a lot of fishing time — we don’t get any in August. We don’t get fishing time until mid-September. Then we get our coho-directed fishery, which can be impacted by the chum run. We’re allowed 10 percent impact on the chum run, we exceed that and they close the fishery down,” Walters said.
The past two years have been particularly bad, according to Cowell.
“That’s when they initiated their new management plan. Right off the bat, 30,000 Chinook salmon died in the streams and hatcheries because of the new plan. It’s not that we could have caught them all, but we could have maybe caught half. But we didn’t get a chance to even go. The fishermen can deal when there’s years with not good returns, that’s part of fishing,” Cowell said. “But when there’s a lot of fish and you can’t fish, that’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Over the past three years, the commercial gillnetting industry on Willapa Bay has gone through a gauntlet of highs and lows. Record catches were celebrated during 2014 only to be followed by the devastating 2015 season that was largely stifled under new regulation.
“We had 50,000 pounds of mostly silvers in one day,” Cowell said referring one unforgettable afternoon 2014. “Compare that to 80,000 pounds of silvers and Chinook combined this year.” The drastic drop wasn’t the direct result of poor runs, but more to blame on flawed regulations, according to Cowell.
“In 2014, our gross income on this dock was over $70,000. In 2015, the first year of the new management plan, I made about $6,000 — about 8 percent of what I made the year before. I went in the hole severely. I lost 92 percent of my income, as did the fishermen,” Cowell said.
“Last year, I didn’t break even,” gillnetter Gary Walters said.
So far, the 2016 season has been better, but closures continue to limit the momentum and curb optimism.
“This year, because of the silvers, it’s been better,” Cowell said. “On this late season, it’s wide open for silvers, but if they catch 110 dog salmon we’ll get shut off.”
Strict protections for dog salmon represent a dramatic change from much of the 20th century, when WDFW actively sought to eliminate them in favor of more commercially valuable species.
The WDFW closures have become increasingly common, according to those in the industry.
“The past 10 years they’ve been cutting back on fishing time,” said Phil Martin, port commissioner for the Port of Peninsula. “I fished back in the 70s and early 80s and we fought with the Department of Fisheries then and it hasn’t changed. It’s just gotten worse.”
The tipping point for Cowell occurred last season.
“In 2015, they closed the Chinook season and allowed 30,000 fish to go to waste. I can’t emphasize how frustrating it was in 2015, when they initiated a new management plan, and 30,000 Chinook salmon were wasted, just died in the river or were wasted at the hatchery. That was something we’ve never had to deal with before and it was because of politics and mismanagement,” he said.
The most recent closure, from Nov. 3 through Nov. 16, didn’t come as a complete surprise to Cowell. “This time we were afraid it might happen because the numbers were so great — we got 22,000 pounds of chum salmon on opening day, Nov. 1.”
Following each closure, gillnetters are instructed to call a hotline for further updates for when it may reopen. The system often leaves little time for fishermen to prepare or make repairs to their gear or boats.
“It’s a hell of a way to treat fishermen, to not let them know what’s going on,” Walters said, adding that he became aware of the latest reopening only hours earlier. “We called and called and there was nothing on it. I call it ‘the cold line.’”
Joel Dunagan, 21, a commercial fishermen from Deep River, was among those making his gillnetting debut on Willapa Bay this fall.
“It was going good until the lock on my outdrive busted,” Dunagan said. “I wired it up with crab wire — just haven’t had the time to tear it apart and put it back together.” In spite of the mechanical problems, Dunagan was determined to return to the water. Skipping a day of fishing to make a repair wasn’t a remote consideration for the first-year gillnetter as the urgency to catch fish often outweighs the inherent risks of the occupation, particularly when fishing is good and unforeseen seasonal closures can come at any time. The day after Dunagan spoke, Nov. 3, the emergency closure was issued.
“We opened up Nov. 1 and got shut down Nov. 3. It was supposed to be open for the whole month of November. We lost 10 days of fishing. We hit the magic number and, even though the streams were plugged with fish, they had to shut us down because of the management plan,” Cowell said.
“The boats are tied up while the biologist wanted us out there. The fish in those numbers are detrimental to what they’re trying to do in the rivers, but there’s no law or mechanism that allows us to fish.”
Cowell and Walters would like to see change beginning with in-season management on Willapa Bay.
“I place the blame squarely on WDFW in Olympia,” Cowell said. Cowell would like to in-season management similar to the approach taken on the Columbia River.
“On the Columbia they do test fisheries — they manage it for what’s in the river. If there’s too many wild steelhead, they use a mesh size that allows them to get through or they keep it shut down until they get by. Test fisheries are the best way to tell what’s there.” Cowell believes test fisheries could alleviate problems that arise during particularly abundant runs on the bay.
“When there are surpluses of fish to let us go in and fish for them. That’s what gillnetters do best, moping up surpluses of fish,” Cowell said.
“In-season management by biologists could let us in. They can tell from stream surveys when they reach their escapement goal,” Cowell said.
“The hatcheries know how many fish they need. When they’ve got their goals met, they should let us fish.” Cowell is also calling for more investments in raising more hatchery fish.
“I would also like to see them raise more fish at the hatcheries. Once a hatchery is running, it doesn’t take a lot of money to double the amount of fish they raise,” he said.
As it now stands, salmon regulations for commercial gillnetting on Willapa are determined long before the fish begin to spawn, something Cowell and other gillnetters would like to see changed.
“There’s no other in-season management other than shutting you down,” Walters said. “They pick days on a calendar way before the fish get here with no in-season management whatsoever.” Instead of having set regulations, some are calling for flexible, in-season regulation. Over the past two years, the closures have become increasingly more frequent, according to Cowell, often coming at times when the abundant runs could be a windfall for the commercial fishing industry and local community.
“We’re the fourth most fishing-dependent community in the nation,” he said. Cowell believes in season management could relax regulations during particularly strong runs, giving more flexibility in harvest numbers and dates for gillnetters alleviating a lot of the issues while stabilizing the industry. Current models are based on below-average runs according to Cowell, which he believes can be detrimental during abundant runs when too many fish are permitted to spawn.
“The average return is approximately 48,000 fish. Our shutoff point, our maximum impact, a number they picked in the management plan, is 4,665 fish. Once we hit that number, they shut us down. It didn’t matter that they had all the escapement that they needed.”
Over escapement, or allowing too many returning fish to spawn in an area, can be counter productive.
“On the North Nemah they were looking for 800 fish and they had 8,000,” Cowell said.
“The fish are literally digging up the redds [egg nests] of other silver and Chinook. They’re actually detrimental at that point.” In these instances, Cowell believes the role of gillnetters is increasingly crucial, but current regulations aren’t fluid enough to allow adjustments in season.
“Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t have any management plans for dealing with good runs of fish like we’ve experienced,” he said.
“Over escapement is just as bad as overharvesting,” said Walters.
Stock assessments detailing the total impact of returning spawning salmon won’t be available until after Jan. 1, according to Willapa Bay Salmon Policy implementation biologist, Chad Herring. Over escapement, however, isn’t an issue for Willapa Bay, according to Herring, at least not yet.
“There’s definitely a point where if you get too many fish productivity becomes lower,” Herring said. “But until you reach that critical point, every fish that you can get on the spawning grounds is good. Too many fish on the spawning grounds hasn’t been the problem we’ve had in Willapa.” Fishing was closed to commercial gillnetting from Oct. 15-31 to further limit mortality rates for natural-origin chum, under regulations set up months in advance.
“You have a pool of fish out there. Some of them are hatchery, some of them are natural origin. You just have to do it by time and space and try to limit those impacts as much as possible,” Herring said in explaining the designation of fishing dates months ahead of the spawn season.
As a monumental chum run unfolded in late October, gillnetters were withheld from fishing until much of the run had subsided.
“They didn’t let us in until Nov. 1. The peak of the run — 90 percent — has passed by Nov. 1,” Cowell said.
The harvesting power and mortality rates of gillnetting require special regulation and attention, according to Herring, necessitating the added regulations and emergency closures.
“It’s the method of fishing — gillnets do just what they say. They catch fish by the gills. For natural-origin Chinook, we have a release mortality rate of 60 percent. For every 10 that hit the net, six of them die. That’s a pretty high rate, especially when you’re encountering them at the same time as other species you’re trying to harvest.” Natural-origin Chinook and coho are the two species most impacted by accidental bycatch, Herring said.
“I think we need to move toward more alternatives that would have a lower release mortality on those fish that we don’t want to retain,” Herring said.
The fallout from the new fishing regulations in 2015 was dramatic, but has since stabilized some in 2016. From Sept. 6 through Oct. 6, coho fishing was largely uninterrupted.
“We had a fair season this year,” Cowell said. “We’re happy for that. There weren’t any Chinook for us to impact so we got to keep fishing for silvers.” Silvers, or late-run coho, are among the best fish caught in Willapa Bay according to Cowell.
“I think they’re the best salmon that come into the bay, the late-run silvers. They come in on the big moons, the big tides, when the water’s cold. They haven’t been sitting around waiting for water to get up into the rivers, so they charge right up. They come straight from the ocean. They’re beautiful, bright fish. Most of these fish were in the ocean a day ago.”
While king and coho are more common dinner tables in the Pacific Northwest, chum are becoming increasingly popular in Asia and other parts of the country as demand for a lighter tasting fish has been growing in the Midwest.
“They like light-colored salmon. They’re filleting them and shipping them east,” Cowell said. Chum caught be gillnetters on the Willapa are often filleted and smoked, destined for domestic and international markets.
Chum eggs are particularly coveted for caviar for their color and ease in processing.