There is a delicate balance on the Columbia River between charter operations, sport and gillnet fishermen, as all angle for advantage in divvying up a minuscule allocation of endangered salmon.

Native spring Chinook salmon are highly prized for their flavor and traditionally premium reputation. They command top prices from restaurants and consumers. They confer substantial bragging rights upon sportsmen who hook them.

However, all things considered, most fishermen probably would just as soon have native Chinook swim right on by. This is because non-tribal fishermen are allowed to catch only 2 percent of returning native Chinook. If this allocation is used up too soon, seasons are ended and huge numbers of equally tasty hatchery-raised spring salmon must be allowed to pass without fishermen having any opportunity to catch them.

All this is achingly familiar to local fishermen. Wrestling over how much of the precious 2 percent may be caught by which kind of fisherman has become as much a rite of the winter months as rigging up is a rite of spring. The surprise is that the different Columbia fishing groups have done fairly well at resisting cannibalizing each other in this conflict-inviting process. But every new year is a new challenge.

This year a professional mediator is helping guide negotiations. This is a wise move. Anyone who has participated in a well-facilitated decision process will testify to the usefulness of having a non-stakeholder help shape the rules of engagement and incrementally reach a consensus that is acceptable to all. Working together will remain essential if the Columbia is to remain a river where different types of fishing peacefully coexist.

The fact is that powerful interests would like nothing more than for Columbia salmon fishing to cease to exist as anything but a hobby. Utility companies, shippers, irrigators and federal agencies would all relish life without pesky fishermen or fish. This is not, however, the kind of Pacific Northwest in which most of us would like to live.

The continuing viability of all kinds of fishing is crucial to staving off this result - the extinction of any type of fishing would remove a vital contingent of salmon advocates, thus increasing the odds of salmon extinction.

It remains to be seen whether a constructive role will be played by a new face in this struggle, the Coastal Conservation Association. Elsewhere, the CCA has not demonstrated an understanding of the importance of nurturing coalitions, a skill with extreme importance here.

We all need to work together on behalf of salmon, with the knowledge that fishermen of every kind are the best friends salmon can have.

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