Northwest residents are slightly spoiled when it comes to our seafood consumption. With access to Columbia River spring and summer Chinook, there seems an abundance of the local treat. These salmon have brought fame to the Columbia River and are considered the finest available on the market. However, much is at stake to the prized, local food source as Oregon Initiative Petition No. 21 gains steam. Though the Columbia River gillnet fishery is the sole provider of local fish to mass markets, the initiative will eliminate non-tribal gillnetting on the Columbia River.
“This measure is not just about the commercial fishermen. It concerns everyone that does not sport fish. For anyone who wants salmon for dinner, or for a wedding, funeral or bar mitzvah,” said Mike Backman, a third-generation commercial fisherman from Cathlamet. “Consumers will still be able to get salmon but it will be coming from thousands of miles away in Alaska. They will miss that fresh, local flavor.”
Sharing Backman’s concerns, Wahkiakum county commissioners, along with commissioners from Pacific (Washington), Clatsop and Columbia Counties (Oregon) recently released a statement concurring in apprehensions regarding the Oregon Initiative Petition No. 21. The County Commissions said, “The initiative’s negative impacts will be borne to a large extent by our four-county region, but will also be felt state-wide.”
Signature gatherers working to put a Columbia River gillnet ban on Oregon ballots collected a reported 105,000 signatures with time to spare before the July 1 deadline.
“We’re moving ahead, assuming this will be on the ballot in November,” said Jim Wells of Astoria-based “Salmon for All." Wells and other gillnet supporters are working on fundraising and hiring a public relations firm to get word out about what’s at stake in the fight. Though the measure appeared on the ballot in 1992 and was subsequently defeated, Wells is concerned about the effects of the passing of the initiative in Oregon.
“All this is an allocation grab for the sports fishing industry,” Wells said. “This is not the end. If this goes through, within a year it will spread to Washington.”
With about 20 percent of Wahkiakum County’s economic activity traced back to commercial fishing, commissioners are concerned. “The initiative will harm our local economies,” they said. “This initiative will shrink the fishing economy, eliminate family-wage jobs and businesses, and harm rural communities where there are often few economic alternatives. No provision is made for compensation to gillnet fishers for their boats and gear, nor is any funding provided to assist them to retool their fishing operations for seining, an investment of at least $100,000 each.
“Fishing is not just a job,” said Backman, “It is a way of life; a tradition. Many local families have been involved in the industry for generations and generations.”
Among concerns from the four county commissions is that the initiative ignores the need for shared sacrifice and shared benefits; it places the burden solely on our local commercial fishing families, at the expense of consumers.
As November approaches, local representatives and gillnetters, such as Backman, will support the mission that Salmon for All intends to carry out, “We are committed to providing ongoing education concerning the public harvest of Columbia River salmon.”