Most fishermen we talk with are inclined to be philosophical about this summer’s sharp dip in albacore tuna numbers.
Tuna troubles probably can be chalked up to changes in ocean productivity linked to El Niño and possibly “the Blob” that disrupted the food chain starting in 2014. Some say the ocean’s top layer is less saline for hundreds of miles offshore this year, keeping tuna lower in the water column and relatively inaccessible. But it’s also a fact that albacore populations tend to be cyclical over multi-year stretches. We may just be in the midst of a natural down time.
Perhaps because of our area’s intense historical focus on salmon, commercial quantities of albacore weren’t noticed in the Astoria area until September 1930, as we reported in our 2012 book “Flight of the Bumble Bee” about the Columbia River Packers Association/Bumble Bee Seafoods, which was long headquartered here. By the late-30s, many tons were being harvested. In 1937, local women working for CRPA put up 70,000 cases of albacore.
“The three years from 1936 to 1939 changed the entire fabric of Astoria and its fishing industry,” historian Irene Martin said. “By 1939, Astoria had a booming new industry flourishing along its waterfront.”
When I moved to the Columbia estuary in 1991, it seems to me albacore were barely part of the public consciousness. But as salmon dwindled in that difficult decade for local fisheries, attention switched back to albacore, which were again starting to venture close enough to shore to make tuna-fishing day trips a viable option for sportsmen. The Oregon Tuna Classic out of Ilwaco and Garibaldi has been a sure sign in recent years that albacore have gained a firm place among local recreational fisheries.
Besides tuna, there’s a big focus in this issue on the Buoy 10 salmon season, which continues to pump lots of money into Columbia-Pacific businesses, big and small. For smaller enterprises, a successful Buoy 10 fishery can easily mean the difference between being prepared to pay next winter’s bills, or folding up shop.
Also reflecting ocean conditions, plus a severe drought in some recent spawning years, salmon fishing somewhat mirrors the troubles for albacore. My uncle’s newspaper, High Country News, has a comprehensive report on salmon conditions at tinyurl.com/HCN-on-salmon.
“Although the Blob has dissipated, temperatures in the North Pacific this summer are still several degrees Fahrenheit above normal. And recent research by NOAA shows that salmon still are hurting,” HCN reports. “We just did our ocean surveys; it doesn’t look good,” a NOAA scientist said. “There weren’t many young salmon out there and there wasn’t much for them to eat.”
From an economic standpoint, this all tells us more diversification continues to be a great idea. We’re a long way from the days when salmon and trees were our only products. We have to keep new, smart ways to make successful lives in this spectacular place that exists at the somewhat capricious whims of nature.