Sportsmen should come back to the bargaining tableIn tribal regions of the world it is a clear sign of economic and political failure when rival groups begin squabbling over a declining stock of natural resources instead of cooperating to manage what they have for everyone's maximum long-term benefit.

There is a predictable outcome to such wasteful diversions of human capital: An elite group eventually grabs the lion's share of the resource, the majority are left with the dregs, and a fractured nation is left wide open to economic and environmental victimization.

There will be those who strenuously object to such a characterization of the current fight between fishing groups on the Columbia, but it comes close enough to justify careful examination.

A century ago, there is no doubt that salmon cannery owners were the elites who treated the Columbia's natural resources and people as their personal property. Fortunes were made, mostly to be squandered in California and the East, while common fishermen ended up in debt to company stores and drowned by the score. This area was little but an exploited colony not dissimilar to the Congo, the Banana Republics and dozens of other remote, resource-endowed regions across the globe.

Those times are long gone, victims of their own excesses and the transformation of the Columbia into an industrial navigation and hydropower canal. But the great lords of the salmon business live on as potent symbolic stalking horses for those who would kill off the last commercial salmon seasons. They ask why gillnetters should get any salmon when generations ago their forefathers erected walls of nets across the river.

The fact is that the commercial fishermen who still survive in the business here are the descendants, sometimes literally, of the heroic men who risked their lives every day for dimes so that their families could survive. Punishing them for overfishing is like blaming the brush-beating villagers hired by the white sahibs for the decline of Indian tigers.

Today's fishing seasons, methods and management are totally different than in the past. Cautious in the extreme, they are designed to do no harm to troubled runs. Are they perfect? No, but the small amount of residual gillnetting that survives is a vital aspect of the Lower Columbia's culture and economy. Besides this, they provide the only local salmon available for purchase by ordinary people. Targeted fisheries like that in Young's Bay simply aren't sufficient.

A great many local people enjoy trying their hand at catching salmon during sport seasons. They, too, are an essential part of the Columbia region's economy and personality. Charter fishing boats are another aspect of this, and provide not only on-the-water fishing opportunities but also good summer wages for quite a few local families.

If one looks for the elites in the modern fishing infrastructure, they consist largely of many of those who have pulled out of the 16-member stakeholder negotiations in Oregon and Washington in recent weeks. Clearly intending to make their arguments to the two legislatures, these are the folks with the $400 fly rods and the ability to pay $200 for guided trips. Though not lacking in good conservation intentions, these groups ultimately speak for people to whom salmon are a lifestyle choice, not a livelihood.

The tragedy of this breakdown is that no one who loves salmon, for whatever reason, should be enemies. The real culprits in salmon declines are government and industry leaders who perceive salmon as a nuisance. They would prefer to have an affordable and functional salmon recovery strategy, but they wouldn't mourn if the whole issue just quietly faded into extinction.

State officials must continue pushing for a return to multilateral talks and consensus-based decision-making. Until this happens, they must also turn a deaf ear to those who want to eliminate commercial salmon fishing in the Columbia's mainstem.

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