When an army of sport anglers comes to the North Coast in August for the Buoy 10 salmon fishery, the U.S. Coast Guard needs a little help.
When the boats show up at the boat ramps, the Coast Guard Auxiliary is ready, on the docks and on the Columbia River, to apply an ounce of prevention in hopes of avoiding a pound of cure.
On the river
The Coast Guard, sheriff’s offices and wildlife agencies of Oregon and Washington all keep speedy boats on the water during Buoy 10 to enforce fishing rules and general safety.
Also on the water each weekend is Ron Hilburger’s red 22-footer, an average-looking fishing boat except for the red, white and blue stripes and Coast Guard coat of arms marking him as a patrol vessel.
“Our primary goal is boater safety,” said Hilburger, a member of Flotilla 62 based at Cape Disappointment, Wash.
On Saturday, Hilburger and fellow auxiliarists John Lester, Flotilla 62’s commander, and Glen Wood, a member of Flotilla 64 based at Tongue Point, ply the river from Buoy 10 to the Astoria Bridge. They look for safety issues, regularly pointing out people not wearing life jackets, lingering in the shipping channel and fishing in an exclusion zone on the south side of the shipping channel near Youngs Bay.
Rule 9 of the Coast Guard’s navigational rules states that “a vessel engaged in fishing shall not impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a narrow channel or fairway.” By early afternoon Saturday, Hilburger’s boat is helping the Coast Guard and Columbia River Bar Pilots run interference for the New Pacific, an outgoing bulk carrier making its way through Buoy 10 before heading out to sea and on to Busan, South Korea.
A couple years ago, Hilburger said, one fisherman avoided by a foot getting run over by a barge being towed downriver.
“He wasn’t even aware of the danger, and that’s what’s scary,” Hilburger said. “The only two people on board who had life jackets were the two kids. It wouldn’t have done them much good.”
On the docks
“Next weekend, this place will be organized chaos,” said Corey Deck, an auxiliarist watching over the boat ramp at Hammond Marina.
Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, Deck and about 12 other auxiliarists station themselves at local boat launches on either side of the lower Columbia. There rests the bulk of the auxiliary’s preventative efforts to keep boaters safe, providing information on safe boating and scanning for potential issues before people ever enter the river.
“When people get fish fever, sometimes the sense is in the back seat,” Deck said, shortly after noting one angler driving his draining boat back to the parking lot, after backing it into the marina without putting in his boat plugs.
Recently, Deck said, the Warrenton Police Department started placing officers on the boat ramp at the Hammond Marina, which he added immediately improves how people carry themselves when launching. Police Chief Matt Workman said placing an officer there and facilitating traffic helps reduce the number of chippy arguments between fishers.
Some of the auxiliarists are also commercial vessel safety inspectors in addition to working during Buoy 10. They offer free inspections of commercial vessels, Wood said, but because of budget constraints can’t extend the service to the prodigious number of “six pack” charter boats taking up to six fishers apiece.
Some auxiliarists also share their opinions that life jackets, currently required only for people 12 and younger, should be required for everyone, along with VHF radios.
“They’re a force multiplier for us,” said Capt. Daniel Travers, commander of Sector Columbia River, of the job the auxiliary does for the active duty Coast Guard.
With his units often occupied with searches and rescues, Travers said the auxiliary, along with all the other state, county and local agencies, play an important role in keeping fishermen safe and the waterway clear for ship traffic.
He estimated about 160 active-duty Coast Guardsmen, along with the auxiliary, patrol Buoy 10, along with county sheriff’s offices, state police and local agencies from both sides of the river.
The Coast Guard’s strengthened Buoy 10 operation is partially a response to 2001, when seven people died during the fishery. Since then, fatalities have been reduced at most one in a given year, but usually none.
By the halfway point of Hilburger’s patrol Saturday, as he is pulling into the Warrenton marina, a report comes over the radio of a vessel taking on water. By the end of the weekend, the Coast Guard had responded to 19 cases, mostly minor except for two capsizings, six people in the water and 12 searches and rescues. The people in the water were rescued by fellow fishermen and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Last weekend was only the beginning. Travers, Workman and the auxiliarists all expect Buoy 10 to heat up over the next few weekends.