Commercial salmon fishing

A gillnet fisherman collects a salmon during a net-pen fishery opening on Youngs Bay between Astoria and Warrenton.

For all who care about the fishing industry and Columbia River heritage, the end of The Gillnetter is a sad occasion marking the close of an era. Combined with the atrophying of the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union and the death Jan. 8 of legendary Ilwaco fish processor Pierre Marchand, Jr., loss of fishing’s long-time trade publication signals a bellwether change.

Run from 2003 to 2015 by fisherman John Westerholm, the Gillnetter with luck may eventually publish a valedictory edition ending a proud history that started in 1969 under the equally dedicated Don Riswick. Westerholm, Riswick and many dedicated contributors, readers and advertisers were united by a belief that strong advocacy for gillnetting meant equally strong support for salmon conservation and recovery. The end of the Gillnetter and deep troubles for the industry for which it advocated removes a key ally for Columbia salmon and the whole biological/economic web that relies on them.

In addition to each being terrifically nice men, Westerholm and Riswick were united in using their publication as a way to nudge political decision makers and to preserve fundamental knowledge about river traditions and history. Every edition provided both an update on the pressing issues of the day and a concise course in subjects as diverse as snag diving and double-ended boat building. Imbued with knowledge that can really only be acquired by spending long nights out on the river in the company of earlier generations of fishermen, they were able to give all local people a small taste of the satisfactions, mysteries and worries of the fishing life. Even in this era that is far less fishing-dependent, that education served to more closely bind us to the Columbia and all the diverse species that rely on it.

Gillnetting is blasted by those who fail to understand how it evolved into being a reasonably selective means of harvesting hatchery-origin salmon. Others use it as a convenient boogeyman for fundraising, while for some it is merely unwelcome competition for salmon they would prefer to catch themselves. Without a doubt, most residents of Astoria, Warrenton, Ilwaco and Chinook recognize the huge economic importance of sports fishing. But we also wish for a continuing role for commercial gillnetting as a source of income for our neighbors and of delicious salmon for our dinner tables.

The Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union was, for more than a century, a powerful and irreplaceable voice for the commercial fishery. It looked after fishermen in an array of ways, including making certain of decent burials and negotiating prices with the Columbia estuary’s once-mighty cadre of salmon processors. Now, with fishing boats confined to a small number of designated off-channel sites where net-pen salmon have been raised specifically to be commercially netted, the union’s reasons for existence have frayed and faded — a victim of dams, urban politics and changing circumstances.

Still, union president Darren Crookshanks deserves support in his quest to keep the organization alive. Not only does our area still derive real benefits from the commercial salmon fishing that endures, but salmon benefit from hardworking people having a real stake in their survival, people for whom they are much more than a hobby.

The death of Pierre Marchand, long-time operator of Jessie’s Ilwaco Fish Co., on some level almost seems comparable to the extinction of salmon runs. He was such a colorful figure on the Ilwaco waterfront for so long, his death shifts the earth on its axis a bit. Son of Al and Jessie Marchand, who bought their photogenic red waterfront processing plant in 1962, Pierre sold the operation in January 2014. But despite failing health, he remained a credible advocate for fishing and channel maintenance.

Marchand, Westerholm and our entire commercial fishing community represent a key part of the personality of this place. We must all do our best to cherish and encourage what is left.

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